2020 Census data delays could make redrawing voting districts, precincts difficult ahead of 2022 elections

Delays in pulling together the data from the 2020 Census will make many deadlines for redrawing congressional and state legislative districts difficult, if not impossible, to meet. (Stock image/Getty Images)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A six-month delay in 2020 data from the U.S. Census Bureau will cause headaches for local officials tasked at redrawing districts and precincts ahead of the 2022 elections.

The data was originally supposed to be delivered by March 31, but in February the Census Bureau announced that data would be delayed until Sept. 30.

The delay is a problem in Colorado because two newly created, independent redistricting commissions are supposed to have completed this work before then.

The delay will also have ripple effects all the way down the bureaucratic ladder because counties need the congressional and legislative districts to create voting precincts that assign where people will vote. This needs to be done 29 days before 2022 caucuses in March or by Jan. 31, 2022.

Routt County Clerk and Recorder Kim Bonner said she has been told they likely would not have the data needed to create these precincts in time, so there is talk of moving primary elections to later in the year.

“We can’t complete re-precincting because that requires us having to name the precinct, and in the name is included the congressional district, senate and house districts as well as the precinct number,” Bonner said. “The state has to get their redistricting done first before we can finalize any re-precinting or redistricting.”

Bonner said if primary elections are pushed from June back into August, the hope is that would allow enough extra time to complete these tasks before the caucuses are held.

The county is also responsible for redrawing the three commissioner districts and needs to base these on population data from the census. Each of the three districts includes parts of Steamboat Springs to make the population roughly the same among each.

Bonner said because of Steamboat’s growth, more of the city would likely be included in the first and second commissioner districts that primarily include southern and western parts of the county.

“It is just kind of determining where the population lies and what you can carve out to put in the outlying districts,” Bonner said.

While districts generally need to have less than a 5% variance between the populations of each, the amount of Steamboat included does not need to be equal. Bonner said she expects the district including South Routt County to include more of Steamboat than the district covering the western part of the county.

These districts are supposed to be drawn by Sept. 30, and state officials have told Bonner they should be able to complete creating these districts by that deadline by using geographic information systems to draw the initial maps and finalizing them when census data is available.

The precincts are tougher because their official names include numbers referring to other congressional and Colorado General Assembly districts meaning they cannot be created until those districts are made. Guidance that Bonner has received from state officials say it is unlikely these districts will be created by the Dec. 29 deadline for the Colorado Supreme Court to approve them.

In previous redistricting efforts the Colorado General Assembly would have drawn the lines based on the census data, but they will not be involved in this year’s process.

In 2018, Colorado voters approved two ballot measures to create independent redistricting commissions, one for U.S. congressional districts and the other for state house and senate districts. Each commission consists of 12 members — four Democratic, four Republican and four unaffiliated.

Local woman to serve on redistricting committee

Robin Schepper, public information officer for Routt County, was named to the legislative-focused commission last month as a Democratic representative. Schepper said she put her name in the running for each of the commissions because chances of making it on either seemed slim, but after a lottery she was one of the first six members named to the commission to draw state House and Senate boundaries.

The congressional-focused commission has already held meetings and the legislative-focused commission will have its first meeting next week. That is when Schepper said she expected to learn more about the timeline for drawing the boundaries and how the process will be impacted by delayed census data.

“It is going to be a challenge because we don’t have the census data,” Schepper said. “Our role is to take census data or other population data and with the explosion that we have had of population growth in Colorado, is to redraw the lines.”

Colorado has added about 700,000 new people in the past 10 years and is expected to get an additional congressional seat. Most of that growth has been on the Front Range, which could require significant district changes across the state.

The role includes having meetings all around the state, at least three in each of the seven congressional districts, to hear from the public about proposed district lines.

One of the important things the commissions need to consider is communities of interest, which are groups of people that share substantial interests and should be included in the same district. This prevents one community’s voting power from being diluted into several different districts.

Gerrymandering, or manipulating the boundaries of a district to favor one political party or class of people, is part of the reason Colorado voters approved these commissions, and Schepper said she has high hopes the commission will result in a fairer process.

“When the party leaders get involved and the gerrymandering happens, you have tons of communities that are either grouped together, which dilutes their power, or they don’t have any representation at all,” Schepper said. “If were going to have a true democracy, we’ve got to get rid of gerrymandering and it seems that independent commissions are the only way that we can do that.”

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