If 2020 has done anything, it served as a reminder that when society suffers, communities of color suffer worse. Even during times of national stress — whether that’s COVID infection rates, police brutality or unemployment numbers — America’s structural shortcomings have a disproportionate impact on populations of color.
And while the former administration, aided by the Supreme Court, ended the 2020 Census prematurely last Fall, the ripple effects of COVID-19’s disruption and political interference are signaling unique challenges for historically undercounted communities of color. Chief among these concerns:
- The quality of Census data and its usefulness for apportionment and redistricting considering the numerous errors and anomalies have been found in 2020 census data requiring additional time to process and correct the data and,
- Final census results (state population totals), will not be transmitted to the President for apportionment before April 30 while detailed block-level data needed for state redistricting would be delayed until September 30 at the earliest.
The statutory deadline to provide redistricting data to the states for legislative line drawing is March 31, 2021. The much-delayed September date, while providing Census professionals necessary time to resolve data errors, raises a host of concerns for advocates wary of latent gerrymandering efforts and who work hard to ensure inclusive and fair public input into the redistricting process. Similarly, state legislators need the data ahead of early elections this year — like those in New Jersey and Virginia.
If Black and historically-undercounted populations experience high levels of omission from the 2020 Census — due to incomplete enumerations, COVID-19 disruptions, hurricanes in the south, and/or the premature ending of the census — fair and equal political representation and the allocation of more than $1 trillion in federal funding each year to local and state jurisdictions are at stake.
Redistricting efforts, namely the drawing of legislative boundaries and Congressional districts in each of the 50 states, occurs every ten years following the census based on a state’s population by race, ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino origin), voting age, housing occupancy status, and group quarters population, all at the block level. This is the census data that states need to redraw or “redistrict” their legislative boundaries into equally populated and balanced legislative and Congressional Districts.
“This is a critical time.” says Jeri Green, Senior Advisor at the National Urban League. “As the Census Bureau has become more transparent under the new administration — sharing greater details on errors and anomalies found in the 2020 Census count: group homes, college students who left their dorms during the pandemic, and the homeless to name a few — national organizations and nonprofits fully understand the root causes of the delays.”
Green continues, “The Census Bureau has admitted they did not count the South well due to bad weather conditions, hurricanes, specifically; that’s Black people. Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi–all along the Gulf coast. Those states in the South where as much as a third of the Black population resides, may fall short in the count.”
With poorly counted communities of color, not only is redistricting harder but gerrymandering becomes a more potent tool against them. As defined, gerrymandering is about drawing electoral districts, with the goal of creating political party power by manipulating legislative district boundaries. Green notes that within Gerrymandering are two common, yet often controversial, practices known as “packing” and “cracking.” Packing involves putting as many voters as possible of a particular group (Blacks, for example), into one district, where “cracking” typically involves splitting Black voters into many different districts to dilute their voting power and increase the voting power and representation of an opposing voting population.
“We know the original gerrymandering was the 3/5ths compromise,” says Green referring to the 1787 agreement to only count three fifths of Black slave populations. “This was baked into the Census and these opportunities to suppress and diminish Black political representation have been there since day one. It’s that raw.”
So what do you do if you serve a community who may not get their proper representation given the delays and political gerrymandering? Green notes several options: “Find out the location and schedule of redistricting hearings for your state, either in the capitol or in state-wide locations which provide opportunities for the public to comment and provide feedback on redistricting plans and ensure the line drawers represent diverse communities. Individuals and organizations can help redistricters identify their state’s key ‘communities of interest,’ geographic areas where residents share common interests.”
Nonprofits and individuals should ascertain in advance whether hearings will be held online or in person, given COVID-19 protections. Nonprofits who believe in democracy and equal representation need to know when and where these hearings are being held, and who is representing their interests. Many states use bipartisan or independent redistricting commissions — find out who is on them in your state and keep your communities informed and engaged.
Additionally, nonprofits can contact their state-based redistricting office to get more information or follow deadlines on the National Council of State Legislatures.