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Census Data Delays Wreak Chaos On States Preparing For Future Elections

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

This week, the Census Bureau is set to finally release detailed results from last year's head count. Those results are used to redraw voting districts across the country. And the delayed release has been causing chaos in states trying to prepare for future elections. NPR's census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In the middle of a pandemic and back to school season, you may not have noticed the second major set of 2020 Census results are coming out more than four months late. But for lawmakers like West Virginia State Senator Charles Trump...

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CHARLES TRUMP: It's frustrating to a lot of us.

WANG: Trump, a Republican who's not related to former President Donald Trump, shared that frustration last month during a public hearing with other members of West Virginia's redistricting committee.

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C TRUMP: We haven't started to draw any maps for the next 10 years yet.

WANG: In a normal year after a national headcount, the public would be able to see by now at least some draft maps of new congressional, state legislative and local voting districts based on the latest census results. But COVID-19 and Trump officials interfered. Last year, because of the pandemic, the Trump administration asked Congress for a 120-day extension of the legal deadline for new redistricting data.

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DONALD TRUMP: They have to give it. I think 120 days isn't nearly enough.

WANG: But a few months after former President Trump said that, his administration tried to move up the release of the first set of census results. That did not end up happening. But it did ultimately force the Census Bureau to further delay new redistricting data because it needed more time to make sure the information is as complete and accurate as possible. In some parts of the country, that's pushed back voting, including in Charlotte, N.C...

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MALCOLM GRAHAM: I make a motion that we delay the at large and the mayoral election until 2022.

EDMUND DRIGGS: Second.

WANG: ...Where Charlotte city councilmembers heard testimony in June from Janice Robinson, a local Democratic Party official who's part of the community group Black Women of South Mecklenburg. Robinson urged the city council to not split up elections among multiple dates because of census delays.

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JANICE ROBINSON: There's already too much chaos with the dates for our municipal races, which, by the way, is a result of the Trump administration screwing with the census. For those of us on the ground trying to educate voters, this additional chaos will only drive them further away from participating in this important civic duty.

WANG: There's also chaos for potential candidates who are planning to run for office but do not know for sure the borders of the districts they would represent. Still, in Virginia, elections scheduled for this November are moving ahead.

PAUL GOLDMAN: Right now, they're going to hold an election on districts that were based on the 2010 census.

WANG: But Paul Goldmann, a Democratic political strategist who says he may run for Virginia's House of Delegates, has filed a federal lawsuit. Goldman is trying to force the state to hold elections three years in a row, including one next year under new voting maps.

GOLDMAN: We have places in the state which has grown dramatically. We know that. We know population has shifted. So some regions of the state will maybe lose a delegate or two. And they'll be gained by another.

WANG: Some states getting ready for elections next year, including Colorado and Oregon, have less than seven weeks to finish draft voting maps before their first deadline in the approval process. Ohio's redistricting commission has less than three weeks. Kathryn Sadasivan, a redistricting attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says shortened timelines risk excluding input from the public.

KATHRYN SADASIVAN: They don't have the time to really develop an effective map that they can provide as an alternative to whatever elected representatives put forward.

WANG: That's adding another layer of complications. And Sadasivan says civil rights advocates are trying to make sure communities of color are fairly represented.

SADASIVAN: Despite the delta variant, despite everything that's going on, we just don't have the ability or the option to wait it out.

WANG: Once the new voting maps are out, the wait is on for lawsuits that challenge them before next year's elections.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.