Census Delays Create Challenges for Virginia’s Redistricting Commission

By Brian Carlton

January 25, 2021

New districts may be delayed a year, due to census problems.

RICHMOND- Virginia’s voting districts likely won’t change this year. Staff members told the Virginia Redistricting Commission Thursday that unless several things fall into place, there just won’t be enough time. That’s because they still don’t know when the final census data will be delivered. 

Under current law, census data has to be delivered to the states no later than April 1. But over the last 10 months, everything from the pandemic to presidential orders pushed back final results. At this point, census officials believe they might be able to get the final data out by May, but even that’s questionable. 

“Because of COVID-19, they did have to delay their operations in 2020 and then there were some data issues [and] lawsuits,” said Meg Lamb, senior attorney at the General Assembly’s Division of Legislative Services. “The data is going to be delayed. How delayed is still very much up in the air.” 

And in turn, that slows down Virginia’s redistricting process. In November, voters changed the way redistricting is handled in the Commonwealth. Previously, the General Assembly took care of it, with districts shifting based on who was in power. Now the process is handled by a 16-person commission, made up of eight citizens and eight lawmakers. But while they have access to population estimates, nothing can be finalized until that census data comes in. 

RELATED: Supreme Court Strikes Down Census Citizenship Question

What Does That Mean? 

Now some things don’t change, regardless of what happens with voting districts. Virginia’s statewide primaries, for example, will still take place in June. That is, at least the Democratic ones will. As of January 23, Republicans still hadn’t determined if they’ll hold a convention or a primary to choose candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. As for the other races, it’s still unclear what will happen. 

The state still has a few options. If the Assembly is determined to try and push through new districts this year, they can change the date for primaries involving districts. Typically, a bill is introduced in the short session and pushes the date back to August. However, that didn’t happen this year. 

“There wasn’t a bill introduced because we didn’t have a clear indication about when the census delivery date would be,” Virginia State Sen. George Barker explained to the commission. “But we have the ability to incorporate it into the budget, the language that would deal with that issue.” 

Barker, who is also on the redistricting commission, said he believes pushing primaries is still an option, as long as the nominees are in place by the end of August.  Early voting for the general election begins in September. 

The alternative is to hold elections based around the current districts this year. With this option, the commission would be working in the background, coming up with districts that would take effect next year.

It’s Not That Easy 

Creating new districts isn’t a quick process, however. As soon as they get the census data, the commission is on a clock. They have to plug in the data, create the new plan and hold three public hearings, all within the span of 45 days. 

That means if the data comes in May 15, the commission would need to present it to the General Assembly by June 30. Once that happens, the General Assembly has to approve it. If the Assembly rejects the map, then the Supreme Court of Virginia gets involved. At that point, the court will choose two experts to draw the maps.

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