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A political ‘monkey wrench’ from COVID-19? Dems, GOP agree Census data delay ‘huge issue’ in redrawing districts

Beyond being used to redraw boundaries of federal, state and other legislative districts, Census data is used to determine how many representatives each state has in Congress and to plan for new roads, schools and other services, according to the bureau.

2020 census, race and origin, immigrants, Latinos, Middle East, North Africa
2020 census, race and origin, immigrants, Latinos, Middle East, North Africa
Paul Sancya/AP

Census data needed for the upcoming redrawing of legislative districts likely won’t be available until September, a delay that could throw “a monkey wrench” into the state’s remapping process — and the political campaigns that follow.

That late release could put the state about five or six days before the constitutional deadline for having maps finished, state Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said.

“I think this is going to be a huge issue as we try to redistrict this spring without having the data that we need to do the redistricting,” Butler said.

“We’re going to have to do it differently this year given what’s going on with the data, and I have no idea what the other party is doing, but I think it’s going to be very difficult to have districts that stand up to potential litigation when we don’t even have the correct data that may be used in drawing lines.”

The release of the population data, which usually happens in early April, was initially pushed back to July 30 because of the coronavirus pandemic, but officials from the Census Bureau told the New York Times that the figures needed for state redistricting efforts likely wouldn’t be available until late September.

State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, center, talks with then House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, left, and state Rep. Mike Murphy, R-Springfield, in May.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, center, talks with then House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, left, and state Rep. Mike Murphy, R-Springfield, during an extended session of the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center in May.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

Beyond being used to redraw boundaries of federal, state and other legislative districts, Census data is used to determine how many representatives each state has in Congress and to plan for new roads, schools and other services, according to the bureau.

The Illinois Constitution doesn’t provide a lot of details on how the data is supposed to be used, Butler said, adding that the changes to the deadline present a “great opportunity” for Democrats and Republicans to start talking about how to tackle the redistricting process differently this year.

The Springfield lawmaker said there were questions around using data from the American Community Survey data, which collects and releases information every year on social, economic, demographic, and housing characteristics, and allows “some level of data to be able to make decisions” but that survey won’t provide the “granular level data” that the census data provides.

Illinois Speaker of the House Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, talks with Illinois State Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, during session on the floor of the Illinois House.
Illinois Speaker of the House Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, talks with Illinois State Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, Wednesday on the floor of the Illinois House.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

The redrawing of districts every ten years is one of the most partisan political exercises as both parties seek boundaries that maximize their power.

A spokesman for Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch said the delay in the data is a “unique situation,” and the new House leader is “still assessing all options, but his goal remains making sure all communities get their due representation in Congress.”

Former state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, who chaired the House redistricting committee in 2011, said the delay throws a “monkey wrench” into political campaigns. Candidates typically begin gathering signatures for their nominating petitions around Labor Day — and they need to know the boundaries of the areas they are hoping to represent.

“If we’re not going to have a good count by the time an ordinary election apparatus clicks in, then we’re all in, I would say, the deep sea,” Currie said. “It’s a monkey wrench. … When people are drawing the maps, if they don’t get good, final data until the point at which people are supposed to be out on the streets passing petitions, you’ve got a real problem.”

Then state House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, talks to reporters in 2015.
Then state House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, talks to reporters in 2015.
Kerry Lester/AP file

The former House majority leader said Illinois, and other states in similar predicaments, could reorder their election schedules if they don’t have data early on. Preliminary data could be a helpful tool for states as they wait for the more detailed census data to come out.

At an unrelated news conference Friday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said his office is looking at how the state might “manage through that” delay.

“It’s obviously extraordinarily difficult,” the governor said. “It’s one thing when they said April, it’s another thing when they said September. It really creates a challenge for us all, but we’ll get through it, we’ll deal with it like we have all the other changes through COVID-19.”