Eight common questions (and their answers!) on the Census

By Claire Low, All On The Line Targeting & Analytics Director

In a few short days, data necessary for redistricting will be released by the Census Bureau. This will be the moment when the redistricting process is fully underway across the country.

In preparation, All On The Line has hosted a series of Redistricting U Summer Sessions over the past few weeks to teach volunteers about redistricting. These training sessions cover grassroots advocacy tactics, the mapping process and how to tell the story of the impacts of redistricting on communities. Our team has heard a number of great questions during these initial meetings, which we thought we would answer here.

Here are eight common questions (and answers) about redistricting and Census data we’ve heard from volunteers and activists. Be sure to check out the final question if you’d like to join and ask questions of your own!

When will census data be released? And what is this “legacy data” I’ve heard about?

On August 12th, the Census will release “legacy data” for redistricting, which is the complete census data set in a more technical format. The traditional data format, called the PL-94–171 file, will be released on September 30th. The data in both releases will be the same, but the format will differ.

How does the legacy/redistricting data differ from the data that was released in April?

The Census Bureau’s April data was focused on apportionment numbers: the number of Congressional seats each state will have for the next decade, as well as total population figures for each state. And, while the April release helped set the stage for redistricting, it did not include the granular, block (neighborhood) level data required to draw maps.

Can map drawers use the data in this format, or will they need to wait until the data is reformatted in September?

Many states will work to transform the legacy redistricting data into a format acceptable for redistricting. This process can take several days to a week or more. While the September 30th release will place a trove of data into the hands of the people, including on the data.census.gov website, most map drawing could start before the end of September.

Where can I find the latest census data?

The Census Bureau will release the redistricting data in the legacy data format at their FTP site on August 12th. For less technical users, they will also upload the new data to data.census.gov on or before September 30th. For those looking to create their own maps before the end of September, public resources such as Dave’s Redistricting have announced that the updated data will be formatted and uploaded to their free map drawing tool in a matter of days after the August 12 redistricting data is available.

Why do we need to draw new lines? Can’t we just use the old lines?

Under “one person-one vote” decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court, Congressional districts within states must have equal population. As a result, Congressional districts are drawn to the person. With the publication of new population figures from the Census, states must rebalance their Congressional districts to the new ideal population size.

Map drawers have more flexibility with state senate and state house/assembly maps. State legislative requirements on population equality vary by state, but in general, state legislative districts can vary by plus or minus 5% of the district’s population. In practice, this means the largest state legislative district could be 10% bigger than the smallest state legislative district in state.

When will maps be drawn?

The map drawing process will move quickly! With the Census delay, states may be under immense pressure to pass maps before statutory requirements or filing deadlines for the upcoming 2022 elections. As a result, most maps will be passed between early-September and the end of the year. For example, the new Colorado commission has already released public preliminary maps, and has plans to make adjustments before October. Some states, such as Florida, will tackle redistricting a bit later, and could continue the map drawing process through the beginning of next year.

Despite the condensed nature of the map drawing process, map drawers can and should adhere to best practices of transparent, inclusive map drawing. Some states, such as Colorado, Michigan, Arizona and New York, have already started holding hearings in advance of data releases, and we should expect to see more hearings in the fall.

What should citizens look for in a map?

Redistricting is different in every state. There is not a one-size-fits all approach to map drawing, but there are some things people can look for in a map. First, a fair process and outcome. That means a transparent process with robust public input. Maps should also be responsive to the will of the people and represent communities of interest in a state.

How can we get involved?

To join an upcoming Redistricting U training and ask questions of your own, sign up here: https://www.mobilize.us/allontheline/?tag_ids=9605

All On The Line is the grassroots movement to end gerrymandering and restore fairness to our elections and democracy ahead of 2021 redistricting. Formerly OFA.