New Census Data Kickstarts Next Phase of Redistricting

by Jacob Rubashkin August 12, 2021 · 2:30 PM EDT

On Thursday, the Census Bureau released its first set of long-awaited local data, kicking off what promises to be a consequential and messy redistricting process. Over the next six months (or so), states will take that block-level population and racial data and draw new congressional and legislative districts to use for the next decade. (The Census Bureau will also release the same data but in more user-friendly form by the end of September).

In a more normal post-census year, the map drawing process would already be well underway. But protracted litigation and the coronavirus pandemic combined to delay the census, which had a cascading effect on the redistricting process. Reapportionment data (how many House seats each state gets) was supposed to be released by Dec. 31, 2020, but did not come out until April 26, 2021. And the block-level results were scheduled for release on April 1, 2021, but did not come out until Aug. 12.

That four-month delay compresses what is already a complex endeavor into a mad dash to complete congressional maps, followed by months and potentially years of court challenges and redraws.

You may have noticed that Inside Elections has not yet released race ratings for the House, or issued broader projections as to the potential net change in seats. Without district lines, it’s simply premature to assign ratings to individual contests, and it’s difficult to make macro projections without the micro ratings. The outset of this redistricting season was made all the more unpredictable by delays, and untested commissions in states such as Michigan, Colorado, and Virginia, and looming litigation, make this redistricting cycle even more challenging to predict. 

Even with lines, we’re still far from Election Day 2022, and there is so much — from the national environment to the identities of the candidates themselves — that remains up in the air. 

Over the coming months, there will be a lot of House maps thrown around, most of them preliminary or hypothetical and many of them purely speculatory. But the maps that matter for 2022 are the ones at the end of the process.

Those final maps will emerge on a rolling basis, as each state’s mechanism for drawing maps is different and they all work at varied speeds. In some states, the clock is ticking. In Montana, for instance, the law requires final maps by 90 days of the release of local-level data. But in Louisiana, there’s no statutory restriction and the candidate filing deadline is not until July of 2022.

Make no mistake: this redistricting process is dramatically delayed compared to a decade ago, when 150 districts had already been finalized by the middle of August, and nearly half of the country’s 435 districts were done by the beginning of October

But even when everything runs on schedule, as in 2011, redistricting takes time. By the end of that year, 285 districts had been redrawn and certified, and it wasn’t until almost the end of March 2012 that all of the districts had been redrawn and accounted for.

That might be an optimistic goal for this cycle, but it’s clear this process will be escalated and truncated.

We won’t wait until all states are completed before releasing ratings. As states produce finalized House maps, and it looks like those maps have survived legal challenges, Inside Elections will start assigning ratings to the districts on a rolling basis.