This past May, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) warned that a 2020 census data delay would disrupt states’ redistricting procedures. In a letter to then-U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, New Jersey and Virginia were top of mind, with November 2021 legislative elections on the docket and a need for new maps to be drawn.
“With delays, these states face constitutional dilemmas,” NCSL Executive Director Tim Storey said. “The bureau must consult with these states as soon as possible to determine the best course of action for releasing data.”
Was that advice heeded? The Census Bureau recently informed states that data necessary for redistricting would not be available before the end of July. If true, upcoming House of Delegates elections almost certainly will operate under court-ordered maps from 2019, The Times-Dispatch recently reported.
The census data delay is a reminder: Even during a pandemic, it’s our constitutional responsibility to put people before politics.
Anticipating COVID-19 disruptions, New Jersey approved a constitutional amendment to keep current maps for this year and redistrict before the 2023 contests. Virginia took a long-term step, with voters supporting a new bipartisan, 16-member redistricting commission, consisting of lawmakers and members of the public.
Every action has to be taken over the coming months to reach as complete a count as possible, and fairly represent the latest snapshot of our population. The Virginia redistricting commission’s ability to foster a more transparent process depends on a responsible collection and transfer of data from federal partners.
We watched with great concern as the 2020 census turned tumultuous at times. Responsible efforts by the Virginia Complete Count Commission helped raise participation. But the federal environment was rife with erratic calendar changes, politicized battles over citizenship questions and overall leadership issues.
The 2020 count deeply matters as to how our elected officials serve in Richmond and in Washington, D.C. As the NCSL explains, not every state explicitly requires the use of census data for congressional and legislative redistricting, but Virginia does.
Counting every American during any year not only is unlikely, it’s impossible. But the Census Bureau is clear about its mission: “Count everyone once, only once and in the right place.”
It’s no wonder that of all the information collected on a census form, political affiliation is not included. It’s a process that always should put people before politics.