JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The U.S. Census Bureau needs more time to wrap up the once-a-decade count because of the coronavirus, opening the possibility of delays in drawing new legislative districts that could help determine what political party is in power, what laws pass or fail and whether communities of color get a voice in their states.
The number of people counted and their demographics guide how voting districts for the U.S. House and state legislatures are redrawn every 10 years. The monthslong delay in census data could make a divisive process more complicated, potentially forcing lawmakers into costly special sessions to complete the work or postponing some primary elections.
“It will pinch the timing for sure on everybody," said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who tracks redistricting nationwide. “For a few states, that’s incredibly meaningful.”
Despite the complications, advocates, lawmakers and others largely embraced the census delay as necessary to get a complete count.
With the U.S. so politically polarized, redistricting plays a major role in whether Republicans or Democrats drive the agenda in each state and how those lawmakers' decisions can affect people's lives. Parties that win large legislative majorities can tilt policy to the left or right on abortion, guns, taxes and other contentious issues.
Redistricting typically is done by state lawmakers and governors, but an increasing number of states have shifted to special commissions.
The new districts frequently are challenged in court for not properly representing minority communities or for favoring one party over another in what is called gerrymandering.
After Republicans scored big statehouse victories in the 2010, for example, they used their enhanced power in 2011 to draw districts to their advantage in some states, spawning Democratic-backed lawsuits that spanned much of the next decade. Democrats have historically done the same when they were in control.