Virginia (almost definitely) won’t get census data in time to redraw maps for 2021 elections

The Capitol at dusk.

Whatever faint hope there was that Virginia would be able to accomplish the 2021 redistricting on schedule disappeared Friday when the U.S. Census Bureau announced all states should expect to get their redistricting data by Sept. 30.

That’s not even close to the timeline Virginia officials said would be necessary to have new House of Delegates district lines in place for summertime primaries and general elections in November.

“It’s just going to be impossible,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, one of eight lawmakers serving on the newly created Virginia Redistricting Commission.

Because Virginia is one of only two states with elections this year that would normally be held using new maps, some officials had raised the possibility that the bureau might be able to get Virginia’s new population data delivered first. But the bureau said it’s planning to “deliver the data for all states at once” instead of prioritizing states with the most urgent timelines.

“This change has been made because of COVID-19-related shifts in data collection and in the data processing schedule and it enables the Census Bureau to deliver complete and accurate redistricting data in a more timely fashion overall for the states,” the agency said in a news release.

The announcement of a lengthy data delay, caused by pandemic-related difficulties with the census count last year, seems to guarantee that Virginia’s 2021 House elections will be held using existing district lines, but it’s unclear how the state will arrive at that outcome. Officials had tentatively said new maps would have to be drawn by May in order to be implemented effectively for the 2021 election cycle. Even if the data arrives a little before Sept. 30, it would probably be long past the time when Virginia has to make a decision on how to conduct its House elections.

The Virginia Constitution requires redistricting for legislative and congressional maps to be completed by July 1 or 45-60 days after the data is received, an achievable deadline if the census data were coming in around the usual time in February or March.

The Constitution doesn’t envision a scenario in which that deadline becomes impossible because the state doesn’t have the information needed to redraw its maps. Instead, it says legislative maps “shall” be implemented for the November elections.

“We are acutely aware of the difficulties that this delayed delivery of the redistricting data will cause some states,” James Whitehorne, the chief of the Census Bureau’s redistricting office, said in a blog post. “Some states have statutory or even state constitutional deadlines and processes that they will have to address due to this delay.”

Because the General Assembly is in session, lawmakers may be able to pass a fix declaring that constitutional rule unworkable and laying out a process for this year’s elections. If the state’s lawyers decide it’d be better to have a court rule Virginia can’t follow it’s own Constitution this year, officials may have to seek action from a judge.

The situation also leaves open the possibility that all 100 House seats will be up for election again in 2022, a scenario a court could order as a remedy for the unusual 2021 process.

Because the census’s timeline is so far off what Virginia requires, Simon said, officials can now take their time figuring out what should happen next.

“In some ways, this takes some of the pressure off,” he said.

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