Feb 19, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Gerrymandering is about to get even more chaotic

Illustration of a United States map as a puzzle
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The next round of congressional redistricting is shaping up to be a mess, beset by even more complications and lawsuits than usual.

Why it matters: This process will likely help Republicans pick up seats in the House in 2022. Beyond that, though, the pandemic and the Trump administration's handling of the Census have made this round of redistricting especially fraught — and states will be locked into the results for a decade.

  • Huge states with diversifying and expanding populations — including Texas, Florida and North Carolina — will likely feel some of the most significant impacts.

Census delays are a big part of the problem this year. The Census Bureau announced last week that it will not release the data states use to draw their legislative maps until the end of September — months later than the usual springtime release.

  • That gives states less time to draw maps, get feedback, resolve the ensuing lawsuits and enact their new plans in time for elections.
  • In Ohio, for example, two deadlines for the state's brand-new process will already have passed by the time Census data is available. California and Oregon have already moved to change state deadlines because of the expected delays.

Some maps won't be finalized until close to the drop-dead deadlines for political candidates, who need to know where their districts are in order to qualify for the ballot, said Nate Persily, a top redistricting expert and Stanford law professor.

  • Both political parties are struggling to prepare for campaigns in still-unknown districts, as Politico reported. This may be especially problematic for incumbents and candidates in states gaining or losing Congressional seats.
  • "Redistricting litigation is usually a bit of a rushed job by everybody anyway. This time, I think it's going to be even more so," said Jason Torchinsky, a top Republican redistricting attorney with Fair Lines America Foundation.

There's also concern about the Census Bureau's new data-security policies, designed to protect the identity of people who might otherwise be easily identifiable.

  • Some experts say data manipulation may lead to inaccurate counts, especially in less populated areas.
  • If the Census isn't transparent about what's happening and why, there is a real risk of sowing distrust in the process, Fair Lines America Foundation executive director and top Republican redistricting expert Adam Kincaid told reporters on Thursday.

The Supreme Court is also a factor.

  • This will be the first round of redistricting after the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act. Jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination, largely in the South, will not have to get pre-clearance for their maps from the Justice Department.

What's next: The Supreme Court, with its newly expanded conservative majority, is slated to hear another case next month that could further chip away at the Voting Rights Act.

  • Brnovich vs. DNC, is a dispute over voting rules in Arizona, but could also give the justices an avenue to curb legal challenges to gerrymandering.
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