On Thursday, the Census Bureau will release new data that should help kick America’s redistricting process into high gear. This effort is already months behind due to the pandemic and schedule changes.
The data used for redistricting will be officially released during a 1 p.m.census bureau news conference. It will be an initial analysis of the first local-level results from the 2020 Census on population change, race, ethnicity, the 18 years and over population, and housing occupancy status.
Getting this second set of census data amounts to a big day for Democracy. Map drawers nationwide will use the data to construct the next decade of electoral district lines in each state.
Here in Georgia, “It puts us one step closer to a special legislative session for the purpose of map drawing,” Redistricting activist Theron Johnson told Atlanta Civic Circle.
Depending on who you talk to, that could be a good thing or a bad thing in a political season filled with accusations of election fraud, potential gerrymandering, and what some say has been a raft of voter-restrictive legislation.
The 200-year-old-plus redistricting process gives a glimpse into how Democracy plays out. Or doesn’t.
Lawmakers and voting rights activists alike have been holding informational meetings on redistricting around the country, including Georgia, to help citizens understand how redistricting works.
This summer, the House Legislative & Congressional Reapportionment Committee and the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee held a series of joint town hall hearings across the state. The hearings enabled citizens to ask questions and have input in the redistricting process.
Johnson attended each session and found citizens overwhelmingly want the redistricting process to be “fair and transparent,” but accomplishing this is a difficult feat. The redistricting process can be a complicated and confusing process to the uninitiated, and it has become even more convoluted in recent years.
Census officials postponed last year’s count-improving programs slated to be used on important numbers that decide each state’s share of political representation and the distribution of about $1.5 trillion a year in federal money for the next decade.
A year of administrative complications, delays and Covid has cut into time this year that would have normally gone into preparing new voting maps, which also shortens the time for the redistricting process.
Because of the time crunch, Thursday’s data is being released in what’s called a “legacy format.” The legacy format is, according to the Brennan Center, an “older, less friendly presentation that may require mapmakers to do some additional work sorting and organizing the data before they can start drawing lines.” The more user-friendly format is set for release in late September.
The Census Bureau released the first population counts – the congressional apportionment data – from the 2020 census in April of this year. It gave an overview of America’s population which stands at about 331,449,281. The data showed Georgia gained about a million new residents over the last 10 years, mostly in metro Atlanta. As a result, Georgia is not expected to gain or lose any congressional districts.
Thursday’s data, the second major set of 2020 census results, is a deeper demographic dive. It is expected to show changes in ethnic, racial, and voting-age of neighborhoods during the last decade. The data is derived from house-to-house canvassing last year.
“This is the population data all the way down to the block level that really provides folks the ability to draw maps,” said Johnson, Georgia State director for All On The Line, a national campaign created to improve equity in the political and voting process, including redistricting.
“Essentially, redistricting is on a compressed timeline,” Johnson said. “Even though it’s on a compressed timeline that doesn’t mean we put transparency out of the window.”
Johnson attended each of the public hearings that Georgia lawmakers had on redistricting.
“Georgians far and wide in every corner of the state made it abundantly clear that we need to have a redistricting process that is fair, transparent, inclusive, and accessible,” he said
Johnson found the hearings to be “deeply flawed” because the data being released Thursday wasn’t available to citizens.
“There wasn’t anything hard for people to comment on,” he said.
One of the Georgia lawmakers who chaired the hearings called Johnson’s criticism unfair.
“Most of the things folks, and arguably all of the things, folks talked to us about were not dependent upon the data,” Georgia Senator John F. Kennedy told Atlanta Civic Circle. “ It was talking about communities of interest, regardless of where the population numbers or how those numbers come in. It was talking about issues of the process, regardless of what the population numbers are.”
“To say that they’re (hearings) flawed I think characterizes the purpose of us getting together to receive information from the public,” Kennedy added.
Kennedy, a Republican, is chair of the Senate Redistricting and Reapportionment Committee.
Going forward, Johnson said, “there need to be opportunities for public input on proposed maps.”
A date has not been set for when the special legislative session on redistricting but some experts say it is likely to be in November.
Johnson and Kennedy agreed the condensed time frame for redistricting make things more difficult.
“In the past, legislative sessions on redistricting lasted a few months,” Johnson noted. “We’re pretty far behind. COVID really wreaked havoc everywhere and in every way.”
“It’s going to make it challenging to try to get this done,” Kennedy said.
The process will bump up precariously close to the regular legislative session in January, Johnson said.
“Because our state has no statutory or constitutional provisions that govern this process, the only deadline you can use is the candidates qualifying for the 2022 elections which is March,” Johnson noted. “That’s a very short runway to pass maps. There’ll definitely be challenges.
“It’s definitely going to be something to keep an eye on.”