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Delayed Census Data Puts Idaho In A Time Crunch For Redistricting

election, voting, vote, ballot
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

Delayed data from the U.S. Census Bureau could upend Idaho’s redistricting process as it’s currently laid out in state law.

Idaho code requires the secretary of state to issue an order no sooner than June 1 the year after the census is complete to convene the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission. The commission must then issue its final report no later than 90 days after it’s been organized.

But Census Bureau officials said states won’t receive the data necessary for drawing legislative and congressional district boundaries until at least July 30, which could lead to significant challenges if it’s delayed further. Historically, states have received this data by March the year following the Census, according to NPR.

“This is a pretty major delay for something that all states are dealing with,” said Jaclyn Kettler, a Boise State University political science professor.

Federal officials have already missed legal deadlines to release census data to Congress — the first time it’s done so since the requirement was established in 1976. The bureau ran into significant hurdles last year completing its work amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said it’s possible more sophisticated software developed after the last redistricting process in 2011 could help jumpstart the commission’s work once the data is available, “but that’s speculation at best.”

Houck said his office has so far only received geographic files that will eventually allow commission members to mold district lines more precisely.

“But that doesn’t do us any good until we have the numbers to drop into those shape files,” he said.

One of the first times these boundaries will be used is when state legislative candidates file to run next year. The deadline to register with a partisan party affiliation is March 12, 2022.

It’s not unheard of for incumbent legislators to suddenly face one of their neighboring colleagues in the House or Senate after the redistricting process moved their district lines. Some candidates may not want to run against a certain elected official, either, if they live in a certain district, which could factor into any decision made to file for office.

How the bipartisan commission carries out its duties, like most things in government, will have to adapt to the pandemic as well.

“It just adds to all the complicated elements of this,” Kettler said. “This isn’t an easy process anyway and now you’re trying to do it in a pandemic with really delayed data.”

The commission, which is made up of six people evenly appointed by Democrat and Republican officials, must hold meetings across the state and take public testimony and suggestions on district boundaries before completing its final report. Commission members must also be “present” to vote. It’s unclear if that would invalidate the vote of commission members who want to do so remotely.

Houck said those concerns could be addressed by finding space to meet where physical distancing guidelines could be met.

“It isn’t directly something that we’ve contemplated at this point yet because there’s larger pressing questions – the date of the data being the preeminent one,” he said.

“We’ll adjust as we need to when we get to that point. Anything outside of that at this point is just speculating.”

For now, Houck said the secretary of state’s office is considering moving around some of these deadlines in Idaho law, though nothing has been finalized or introduced at the state legislature.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!