Census delays could push back November elections
November elections in Suffolk and throughout the state could be pushed back due to delays with the Census Bureau as it announced recently that data needed to redraw electoral boundaries would not be released until Sept. 30.
The city should receive the data within 30 days of release, and then representatives from the law firm McGuireWoods of Richmond, who are assisting the city in updating its 2021 redistricting maps, said they would move quickly to propose new boundaries for the city’s seven boroughs based on the data. It was supposed to be released by March 31, but George Martin with McGuireWoods told council that will not happen.
Martin also told council that the firm would have to come back and meet with council once it knows what is going to happen with the release of the Census data. He said the firm would also likely have to have a session with council on the strategy going forward.
“Obviously, every jurisdiction in the state, including the state, will be affected by the late release of that information,” Martin said, “so we presume that there will be a coordinated effort to try to address that situation.”
Robert Lofton, also of McGuireWoods, told council that the timeline is “up in the air” with regard to redrawing the boundaries.
He outlined the five basic legal requirements for redistricting, including that:
- Redistricting must be done every 10 years in years ending in 1.
- They must be drawn from U.S. Census data, as adjusted by the state Division of Legislative Services, and requires DLS to account for any prison populations in a locality.
- They must be equal in population.
- Districts cannot be drawn to discriminate based on race.
- That districts must be contiguous and compact.
After the Division of Legislative Services adjusts the data, each locality is to do its own analysis and redistrict according to that data, and then localities must pass an ordinance to adopt its redistricting plan.
Lofton said the prison and jail population has already been reported to DLS, and then they will take the data from each location and compare it to data it gets from the Census Bureau. He said there would be discrepancies due to DLS having more up-to-date data.
In a non-COVID-19 era, Lofton said DLS would normally have the data by mid-March. He said it would need to meet with council in at least one closed session to talk about legal issues, if there are any, and then it would adopt the ordinance to redistrict.
If it had it on time, McGuire Woods would have something for council to adopt by mid-May.
Lofton noted that the Census Bureau had kept pushing back the timeline in which its data would be ready. Before the most recent announcement last month, Lofton said he thought the data would be ready by late April or early May.
“Obviously, with elections in November, that puts us in a very, very tight window,” Lofton said. “And that’s just the reality of where we are.”
The Census Bureau cited “COVID-19-related shifts in data collection and in the data processing schedule.”
“We have had conversations with DLS for several months now,” Lofton said. “We’ve been tracking this for you, and candidly, right now, no one knows exactly what’s going to happen.”
He said local elections, along with elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and the General Assembly, would be affected. Lofton said it would be in a holding pattern, in the meantime.
Lofton said it could not go into too much detail on how many maps it could provide because it could touch on possible litigation issues, but it would depend on the data and how the population had shifted, if there were any shifts. Based on the five legal requirements, the firm would explain what the data says, and then it could provide scenarios in which there may be one or two possible alternatives, but currently, it does not know how any boundaries would be mapped.
While the number of people in a borough may not be exactly equal, Lofton said the legal requirement is that it has to be “substantially equal” between the seven boroughs.
“Localities are not going to be able to set their precincts until they have this data,” Lofton said. “All localities in Virginia do their redistricting, so we are in a bit of uncharted territory. The entire Commonwealth is.”