A delay in census counting because of the coronavirus pandemic could push Texas redistricting into legislative overtime next summer.
Trump administration officials on Monday proposed delaying reapportionment counts and the distribution of redistricting data by four months, which would kick the delivery of data Texas lawmakers need to redraw political districts from March 2021 to July. That puts it past the end of the next scheduled legislative session.
The proposal must be approved by Congress. Under that plan, census counting would extend to Oct. 31.
The once-a-decade count of everyone living in the U.S. is used as a roadmap for the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds Texas gets every year. It also determines the political future of the state. State lawmakers use the detailed census data to redraw political districts to adjust for population growth so districts are roughly equal in size.
Typically, apportionment counts for congressional seats are delivered to the president in December, and more local data comes in by the end of March. But the U.S. Census Bureau has been forced to delay its field operations for the count, which began in Texas just as the coronavirus outbreak began to grow.
The Texas Legislature meets once every two years from January to late May. Under the bureau’s proposal, the redistricting data would come “no later than July 31,” meaning Gov. Greg Abbott may have to call lawmakers back for a special legislative session to redraw congressional maps.
It's not immediately clear what this will mean for redrawing legislative maps. The Texas Constitution indicates state Senate and House maps must be redrawn by the Legislature "at its first regular session after the publication of each United States decennial census." It's also not clear what this would mean for the involvement of the Legislative Redistricting Board, a five-member board that steps in to redraw state Senate and House maps if lawmakers fail to redraw them during the regular legislative session following “the publication of the decennial census.”
In Texas, that exercise has a long and fraught history. Since Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Texas’ political mapmaking has ended up in the federal courts, where judges have ruled at least once every decade since that lawmakers discriminated against voters of color. Next year’s redistricting round will mark the first time in nearly half a century that the Texas Legislature can redraw maps without any federal supervision to ensure they don’t discriminate against voters of color.