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Census delays district mapping

Pushing back primary in 2022 a possibility

By Robert Swift

Capitolwire

HARRISBURG — Two legislative committees heard testimony Wednesday about how a six-month delay in receiving U.S. census data could pose logistical and legal headaches for Pennsylvania’s legislative redistricting process.

The recent announcement by the U.S. Census Bureau that the needed redistricting census block data won’t be available to states until Sept. 30, instead of

March 31 as originally announced, set the stage for the joint hearing by the Senate and House State Government Committees.

The census data provides the building blocks for redrawing boundaries for 253 state General Assembly districts and 17 congressional districts to reflect population changes across the state. Pennsylvania is projected to lose one congressional seat through the redistricting process.

Candidates need to know the boundaries of a district before they can file to run for a seat.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, has already raised the prospect of delaying the May 17, 2022, primary to accommodate the census data delay.

Senate State Government Majority Committee Chairman Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, asked how census officials can be sure the new Sept. 30 data delivery date is solid.

“We feel this is a really solid production schedule,” said James Whitehorne, chief of the Census redistricting and voting rights data office.

He attributed the delay mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic and said that extra time is needed “so you are making sound decisions off of sound data.”

The redistricting data includes statistics on race, ethnicity and individuals in group living situations such as nursing homes and prisons.

If the census data is delivered by Sept. 30, the six-month delay would probably cause the final state certification of redistricting data to be completed by the latter part of May 2022, said Brent McClintock, executive director of the state Legislative Data Processing Center.

House State Government Committee Minority Chair Margo Davidson, D-Delaware, urged the immediate formation of the state Legislative Reapportionment Commission so it can hold public hearings and gather evidence to start to carry out its duty of redrawing state legislative districts. Davidson said she would support a move to delay the May 2022 primary if needed.

Congressional redistricting is done separately by legislation.

An election expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures offered several scenarios for states to cope with the delay.

“There is no easy path,” said Wendy Underhill, director of NSCL elections and redistricting programs. “Not everything works in all states. Everyone has to figure it out on their own.”

Underhill outlined several options, including delaying the 2022 primary date, shortening candidate filing deadlines or getting permission from the state Supreme Court for relief to miss a redistricting deadline as California has done.

State officials could also start to draw maps with other available data and then use the census data once available to fine-tune the maps, she added.

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