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Redistricting Woes Likely from Census Delays

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau undertakes the extraordinary task of counting the individuals residing in the United States and its island areas. Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the primary use for the data collected by the decennial census is to determine the number of seats each state has in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives — a process called apportionment. The census also provides social scientists with a fresh crop of demographic data and its data are also the basis for allocating $1.5 trillion per year in federal spending.

With 2020 being a census year, it is no surprise that this all-important and constitutionally mandated task would also be impacted by the current COVID-19 pandemic.

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On April 13, 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau delayed its field operations by about 90 days because of the pandemic, and at the same time asked Congress for authority to delay the release of census data by 120 days. If granted, according to the National Congress of State Legislatures, the delay would be the first in at least 100 years.

The first results — used to reapportion congressional seats among states and reset the Electoral College map for the next decade — are legally due to the President by December 31, 2020. Under federal law, the president is required by January 10 to hand off those numbers to Congress for certification. But the 2020 census is facing some particular challenges to meet those dates; some related to COVID-19, while others have been created by changes in procedures taken by the current administration raising concerns over an undercount in the results.

Congress will need to decide whether to grant the request for these delays to release the data. The requested delays stem from the delay in field operations and to two federally mandated deadlines:

Under current law, data to be used for reapportioning districts in the U.S. House of Representatives are to be delivered to the president by December 31, 2020. This data determines how many congressional seats each state will have for the following 10 years.
The request would delay this deadline until April 30, 2021.

Under current law, data to be used by the states for redistricting legislative and congressional seats are due to the states no later than March 31, 2021. In previous decades, this data have been provided to the states on a rolling basis, starting at least six weeks prior to the deadline. The request would delay this deadline until July 31, 2021.

Such delays will reverberate in all states, as a delay in the release of data would compress the timeline for redistricting. For some states, the requested delays would be uncomfortable; for others, the delays would mean deadlines that are established in state constitutions or statutes will be impossible to meet.

Specifically to California, whenever census data are ultimately released and redrawing of districts begins,
it is expected that the state will lose one congressional seat, shrinking the Californian congressional delegation from 53 members to 52 — the first time in its history to lose a seat. 

Gabriela Villanueva is CAP’s Public Affairs Analyst. Questions or comments related to this article should be directed to