The U.S. Census faced severe challenges in 2020. There were natural disasters, a pandemic, earlier deadlines — and the fallout is being felt locally. Last Friday, State Board of Elections officials were told that local district data based on the census results — used to draw new maps — will be arriving six months late this year. That may force cities in the Triad to push back local elections, keeping current leaders in office beyond their original terms.
Based on population growth numbers, cities that elect local leaders by district — mayors, city council members — have to update those districts following each new census, which happens every 10 years. The goal is to rebalance the population in those districts such that it comes down to one person, one vote.
North Carolina redistricting expert Blake Esselstyn spoke with WFDD's David Ford.
On the process of redistricting:
So, the census releases block-level population counts. The block population varies widely, and they can be tiny — sometimes the median between two sides of a divided highway is actually classified as a block — so, they vary enormously in size. But essentially the process of redistricting is kind of like a puzzle where you're trying to get different census units to add up to more or less the same number for each district. And I mentioned blocks are the basic unit, but often, for example, in county redistricting, people are trying to keep precincts whole. So, rather than just drawing very fine-grained lines along block boundaries, what they might be trying to do is assemble districts based on precincts.
On the delay in releasing local district data:
It's a substantial delay. It's six months essentially. So, actually, the original period that the census predicted for releasing the redistricting data would have started on February 18th and gone through the end of March. And so now, instead of everything being done by the end of March, as far as the publishing of that data, we're jumping a full six months to the end of September. And those six months were historically when the bulk of that redistricting would happen. So, if the data is not even going to be coming out until more than two months after the filing period begins, those municipalities are trying to figure out what to do.
On what can be done at the state level to help:
A lot of observers are recommending that instead of having our primary in March for 2022, which dictates a filing period that begins in December — you think about all the things that need to happen with mail-in ballots and all the things that the boards of election need to do in advance of the election — that we move to having our 2022 primary in May instead of March, which is how it used to be in North Carolina until fairly recently. So, by having a primary in May, that would just allow that much more time for redistricting to happen after the data arrive in late September. So, it may be that the General Assembly, in addition to giving relief to these cities that would need to have their elections postponed, will also move the primary date in 2022.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.