States under pressure to redraw congressional and legislature districts but facing a delay in the release of the needed data may be able to get the numbers in an outdated format in August, more than a month earlier than the planned date for their official release, a U.S. Census Bureau official said Thursday.
The redistricting data will be available in mid-to-late August, but they will be in an older data format that may be difficult for some states to work with since they require extra steps to be taken to make them usable, Al Fontenot, the bureau’s associate director of decennial census programs, told a Census Bureau advisory committee.
The Census Bureau recently announced that the deadline for releasing the redistricting data would be pushed back from the end of March, the date required by law, to the end of September because of delays caused by the pandemic.
The states of Ohio and Alabama promptly sued the statistical agency, saying the delay would undermine their ability to redraw districts. The Alabama lawsuit also challenged a new method being used by the Census Bureau for the first time for protecting participants’ privacy, which the state argues produces faulty numbers.
The delay in releasing the redistricting data has sent states scrambling to come up with alternative plans because many will not get the data until after their legal deadlines for drawing new districts, requiring them to either rewrite laws or ask courts to allow them a free pass because of the delay. Candidates may not know yet whether they will live in the district they want to run in by the filing deadline. In some cases, if fights over new maps drag into the new year, primaries may have to be delayed.
The availability of the redistricting data in the outdated format in August was first disclosed last week in a statement by a Census Bureau official in the Ohio lawsuit. The data officially released to the states in September will be on DVDs and flash drives with a software tool that makes it easy for browsing through the data, Fontenot told the Census Scientific Advisory Committee.
The data ready in the outdated format in August will need to be imported into a database. Relationships then will need to be established between files, and users will need to pull a subset of files to look at a specific geography.
“Given the difficulty in using data in this format, any state using this data would have to accept responsibility for how they process these files, whether correctly or incorrectly,” James Whitehorne, the bureau’s chief of the Census Redistricting and Voting Rights Data Office, said in the court filing in the Ohio lawsuit.
The Census Bureau is planning to release apportionment figures, the state population counts used for determining how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, by the end of April. One of the reasons the extra time was needed for the redistricting data is that the Census Bureau originally had prioritized tasks to get the apportionment numbers finished, pushing back work on the redistricting data, Fontenot said.
Despite the challenges of the 2020 census — the pandemic, hurricanes and wildfires — the Census Bureau hasn’t uncovered anything so far to suggest that the data “will not be fit for its constitutional and statutory purposes,” Fontenot told the advisory committee made up of demographers, computer scientists and geographers.
The Census Bureau is working with outside experts to evaluate the quality of the 2020 census data given the challenges, and two statistical programmers have begun analyzing the data, the American Statistical Association said Thursday.
Although some anomalies have been found during the processing of the census data, that’s normal based on past experience, and they allow statisticians to fix potential errors, said Michael Thieme, an assistant director for Decennial Census Programs at the bureau.
“We haven’t found anything that has been impossible to fix,” Thieme said.
A saving grace of the 2020 census was new technology, said Ron Jarmin acting Census Bureau director.
This was the first decennial census in which most respondents were given the opportunity to answer the census questionnaire online, and census takers who visited the homes of those who hadn’t responded were able to log answers into their iPhones.
“Right now, from my advantage point, everything looks pretty good,” Jarmin told the advisory committee.