A months-long delay in the release of state-by-state congressional reapportionment and census data is complicating how political candidates and party organizations prepare for the 2022 House elections.
Beset by holdups, the U.S. Census Bureau won’t release the once-per-decade state population totals and how many House districts each state will have for the coming decade until April 30. That’s four months after the statutory deadline, and even that date is fluid.
Meanwhile, the detailed, block-by-block population data that state legislatures and redistricting commissions need to redraw congressional lines won’t arrive from the bureau before July 30, months later than at a comparable point in 2011.
The cascade effect of the elongated data release schedule will extend throughout the political process, from local election administrative planning to national campaign committee strategizing and recruiting, as Democrats defend one of the slimmest House majorities in modern history.
“It gives us more time to prepare, but it also creates an extra level of uncertainty that people don’t exactly like — whether its elected officials or candidates or whoever else,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust. “It’s going to be months of that, and we’re going to be waiting and waiting and waiting.”
The delays will complicate efforts by congressional campaign committees to recruit candidates — a process that usually begins right after the previous election ends — because they won’t know for at least six months what the district lines will look like. And candidates who announce before the lines are set could have trouble convincing donors to give money, when the district’s competitiveness is unknown.
That could give incumbents, who can more easily raise money in the off-year, a leg up on the competition.
“It makes it harder to recruit candidates, because you don’t know who’s going to be running, you don’t know what the districts are going to look like,” said Tom Davis, a former House member from Virginia who led the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, during the 2001-2002 redistricting cycle. “And so for challengers, it’s a little bit harder to raise money.”
A candidate who announces a campaign before the lines are set also runs the risk of becoming a target of the opposite party if it has a say in reshaping district lines — an often ruthlessly partisan process. It may behoove a prospective candidate to lie low early and not attract attention from the other party’s line-drawers.
House members, more readily than nonincumbents, can prepare for redistricting by building big campaign bankrolls to tap. That’s particularly important if new maps put them in electoral danger.
Primary and general election losses tend to increase in redistricting years because more incumbents are running in new territory where they’re not as well-known. An incumbent accustomed to easy re-elections can suddenly find it difficult to even be renominated, let alone secure another term that November.
“Raise a lot of money and be able to move quickly. Stay on war footing,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic consultant who was the deputy executive director and national political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Davis said he’s always advised incumbents planning to seek re-election in a redistricting year to “get in good with your legislatures” and forge relationships with the state lawmakers often responsible for drawing lines.
“If you have a state PAC or something like that, take care of your key people, so that they’re going to take care of you,” Davis said. “Some of these legislators may have their eye on your seat, you never know. Or they’ll create an open seat and take out a big chunk of your vote. You just don’t know.”
State legislatures and redistricting commissions also will face compressed timelines to prepare for the 2022 election.
In 2011, 17 states had finalized their new congressional lines by the end of August — including Arkansas, Louisiana, and Iowa by the end of April — according to data compiled by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt’s “All About Redistricting” website. Those states and others won’t be able to even begin the process until the summer.
California, where a commission will redraw lines, won’t have draft congressional maps ready “until late August at the earliest,” Paul Mitchell, a data consultant and the owner of Sacramento-based Redistricting Partners, wrote last week in his “Redistricting Report” newsletter. In 2011, California’s commission certified a final map on Aug. 15.
Most state legislatures meet part-time and will complete their sessions this year by the end of June. They won’t have redistricting data before then, so they’ll have to schedule special sessions to redraw lines or do so early in their 2022 legislative sessions.
The ripple effects will percolate down to local election administrators, who perform unsung work to prepare their communities for the new district lines.
Local election officials “have to do an amazing amount of work to take the new redistricting plan and remake precincts, remake maps, and reassign voters to the right districts,” said Wendy Underhill, the director for elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “So there’s a huge administrative function done by local election officials that usually gets dropped out of the discussion about redistricting that has to take place.”
“It’s going to be complicated for the states to make all of the waterfall of changes based on the census delays,” she added.
If redistricting processes extend months into 2022, states may be forced to delay candidate filing periods or even primary dates. Lawsuits challenging maps, a staple of every redistricting cycle, also threaten to prolong the process.
“The lawsuits will make this even more difficult and draw out the process,” Russell said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org