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Why Redistricting Efforts Are Even More Chaotic Than In Past Decades


It would be easy to believe that it's way too early to be thinking about the 2022 elections. But it is not too early if you're a politician interested in redistricting. Lawmakers are preparing to redraw redistricting maps in a way that can tremendously affect political power, like the number of lawmakers from each party in Congress. NPR's Greg Allen reports the process this year is even more chaotic than usual.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: At a state Senate hearing in Pennsylvania recently, Republican lawmaker Cris Dush recalled the good old days. An official with the U.S. Census Bureau was there to explain why the data states use for drawing legislative and congressional maps won't be available until August, nearly five months later than usual. Back in the 1800s, when data were collected by census workers on horseback and brought by train to Washington, Dush said it was done on time.


CRIS DUSH: And yet now, today, with 80% of your data coming in on time and in nanoseconds via computer, I'm beyond astounded as to why this data is taking so long.

ALLEN: The Census Bureau says it's not that simple. Because of the disruption caused by the pandemic, officials say they need more time to compile and release the data needed to redraw district maps. Wendy Underhill with the National Conference of State Legislatures says around the country, lawmakers, staff and lobbyists are scrambling.

WENDY UNDERHILL: It certainly compresses the schedule for every single state. Some states have a little bit trickier situation than others.

ALLEN: New Jersey and Virginia, for example, have legislative elections this year. New Jersey has already decided to use the old maps. Many other states have early filing deadlines and primaries for the 2022 elections and constitutional mandates for when the new district maps must be ready. Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says if states can't hit their deadlines, courts are likely to give them more time. Judges, he says, hate to draw maps.

JUSTIN LEVITT: If it comes down to a choice of extending the deadline a little bit in order to let the primary decision-makers take a crack, courts are only too happy to say, sure, sure. You can have all the extra time you need.

ALLEN: The process of drawing new maps - redistricting - is a high-stakes endeavor that typically involves armies of lobbyists and staffers. Even before the official numbers come out, experts are using sophisticated computer programs to draw maps aimed at helping a specific party or incumbent. The practice - gerrymandering - has a rich, perhaps, disreputable tradition in American politics going back to the earliest days of the republic. Michael McDonald, professor of political science at the University of Florida, fears that this year it may be an insider process that favors those in power.

MICHAEL MCDONALD: This truncated timeline could lend itself to more partisan gerrymandering, more racial gerrymandering than we've seen in the past. It's certainly possible.

ALLEN: A lot depends on the census numbers. At the end of the month, the Census Bureau will release data that determines which states will gain and which will lose seats in Congress. By some rough estimates, Texas and Florida are expected to gain at least two seats each. New York, California and several states in the upper Midwest are expected to lose seats. And in many key states, Levitt says, the legislatures, which oversee redistricting, are controlled by Republicans.

LEVITT: The Republican Party, to the extent that they are looking to use the redistricting process to consolidate power, will be in the driver's seat in an awful lot of states.

ALLEN: There are some changes since 10 years ago, the last time states redrew their maps. In an effort to discourage gerrymandering, more states have given the job to independent commissions. At the same time, decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have greatly reduced the oversight federal courts will now play in policing gerrymandering. There will still be lawsuits. But they're more likely now to be heard by state courts. And this year, with the compressed schedule, McDonald says plaintiffs won't have a lot of time to convince a court to overturn unfair maps.


MCDONALD: And so you get a free pass, at least for one election. In fact, you may get it for two or three. So you might as well do it.

ALLEN: As someone who doesn't like gerrymandering, McDonald says he hates to say that. And it's a reason he and others say that it's important for the public to get involved this year.


Greg Allen on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.