Coronavirus-Related Census Delays Could Affect California's 2022 Primary Election

Angelenos cast their votes in the March 2020 primary. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)

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COVID-19 has caused delays to the 2020 Census operations that will likely be felt for years.

One critical process tied to the census is redistricting — in other words, the redrawing of voting district lines. If that gets delayed, which is looking very likely, there could be serious ramifications for California's political processes.

Every decade, a group of 14 California citizens is tasked with drawing the district maps for U.S. representatives, state senators and state assembly members.

This year will be only the second time a commission is formed. Prior to the passage of Proposition 20 and Proposition 11 in 2008, the state legislature would draw the lines themselves (critics argued this meant maps were drawn with political motivations).


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The redistricting process went fairly smoothly a decade ago, but this year, with the Census Bureau asking Congress for extensions to complete the census, the complicated job of drawing districts will involve new obstacles.

Normally, census enumerators would go door-to-door collecting forms starting at the beginning of May. Now, for fear of spreading coronavirus, that work is being pushed to later this summer, with a projected end date of October 31.

That means the deadline to determine how many representatives in Congress each state gets is also being delayed — most likely until April of 2021.

This is where work gets tricky for the state's redistricting commission.

IMPOSSIBLE DEADLINES

The normal redistricting process goes something like this:

  • Commissioners receive California's population data from the Census Bureau by April of the year after the census (in this case it would be April 2021).
  • They take three or four months to redraw voting district maps using that data.
  • Commissioners need to make sure that all districts are approximately equal in population — that's why census data, and any population or demographic changes, are so important.
  • During the whole process, the commission must avoid splitting up voting districts with populations that share a common social or economic interest.
  • They're also supposed to hold meetings to hear concerns from the public and interest groups.
  • Maps should be drawn and approved by Aug. 15, 2021.

According to Stephanie Ramirez-Ridgeway, chief counsel to the State Auditor's Office, census population data might not even get to the commissioners until after that deadline. That would be a serious problem, because politicians deciding whether to run in 2022 wouldn't have maps to reference.

And that's not the only issue. Ramirez-Ridgeway has another concern:

"I don't have a commission yet. That's the other crazy wrinkle here."

The 2010 commission will keep serving for the next couple of months, until the 2020 commission is chosen via bingo ball (yup, bingo ball) from a pool of eligible candidates. That means no one is working on resolving this timeline challenge.

THERE'S STILL HOPE

According to Eric McGhee with the Public Policy Institute of California, there's two likely scenarios.

"Either the commission will just have a big fail and not draw anything at all, or they'll move that deadline," McGhee said.

If the commission doesn't draw maps, the state constitution says the problem should be taken to the California Supreme Court, which may hire an independent group to do the work.

Or the commission could ask the Supreme Court for help. The justices can't permanently change the redistricting deadline since it's written into the state constitution. But according to Ramirez-Ridgeway with the Auditor's Office, they could potentially offer a one-time extension. She said,

"I think we're going to see courts struggling — across the board — to catch the law up to our circumstances. It's going to be a fascinating legal question."

Unlike the Supreme Court, state voters do have the ability to change the constitution. McGhee with the Public Policy Institute predicts the legislature might choose that option and put a deadline change on the ballot, either in November or in a special election.

But even if the deadline is changed, there's the issue of the March 2022 primary election. Candidates are supposed to file nomination forms 88 days before an election, which would be around December. So if the census data is delayed, and district maps are drawn much later in the year, it could bump up against that deadline.

McGhee with the PPIC said, most likely, the 2022 elections will need to move as well. Earlier this year State Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) introduced a bill to do just that, with the intention of shortening the election cycle between the primary and general election. Now with a pandemic in the mix, McGhee expects that bill to pass.

READ MORE ABOUT THE 2020 CENSUS: