A perfect storm: Covid-19, the census and redistricting
Thursday, April 16, 2020 by Jo Clifton
City demographer Ryan Robinson is worried about the outcome of the 2020 U.S. Census. “This is going to be a horrible census,” he told the Austin Monitor.
Because of the need for social distancing to slow the spread of Covid-19, the U.S. Census Bureau has stopped collecting census data in person and plans to restart the process in June.
As a result, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is proposing to delay information necessary for states to do redistricting for Congress as well as state legislatures. It remains to be seen whether Congress will go along with a proposal from Ross, who announced this week that he wants to extend the time for people to respond and for the bureau to collect field data to Oct. 31.
That extension would mean the results would be delivered to the president up to four months late – by April 30, 2021 – and redistricting data would be delivered to the states no later than July 31, 2021, according to a news release from the department.
That does not work out well for most state legislatures, including Texas, and it could hamper efforts to draw new districts for the Austin City Council.
Robinson said, “There’s no way (the census) will give us good data, and that’s a problem, but redistricting will march on” using the data gathered from the census.
Robinson was particularly concerned about students living near the University of Texas, many of whom have gone home because of the coronavirus. He described the area as perhaps the densest neighborhood in the state, and said it would be particularly challenging to find those students and get them to fill out the census form as if they were living here. He was also concerned about people living in houses that were not built before the last census. Several people in the Mueller development did not receive census forms in the mail, he noted.
State and local regulations assume that those in charge of redistricting will receive the data they need by the end of March. If the data is not received until July, Gov. Greg Abbott will have to call a special session of the Legislature, and such irregular sessions are limited to 30 days.
Deputy City Auditor Jason Hadavi helped shepherd the original Austin redistricting commission in 2013, after voters approved a charter amendment establishing single-member districts in 2012. Hadavi, who will do so again in 2021, told the Monitor that the charter amendment was designed so the commission would be established at the same time the census data was coming in.
Normally, Hadavi said, the first eight commissioners would be chosen in January by a random drawing from qualified applicants. Those eight would choose the remainder of the commission. Then the commission would hire staff and set a schedule to do their work. But all of that should happen in the spring, with the commission working through the summer and producing a final product by Nov. 1.
Hadavi would not guess whether the commission could put off adopting new maps and what time frame would give City Clerk Jannette Goodall and County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, who supervises elections, enough time to get ready for elections with new maps in 2022. He said that would be a question for the city’s Law Department.
Travis County will also need to do redistricting, but commissioners are free to draw the maps themselves if they wish.
Lila Valencia, senior demographer at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told the Monitor via email, “At this point, the delays to constitutional dates are only proposals. We will have to wait to see how Congress proceeds on this.
“Additionally, we do not anticipate having a lack of Census data that would impact redistricting at any level. However, if the Census Bureau does not feel they have successfully and effectively enumerated within a set time frame, they may make use of administrative records (such as from vital statistics and other government agency data) to supplement counts already collected. That would not be ideal and could have broad-reaching implications beyond redistricting.”
The state of Texas did not appropriate funds to assist with the census, but Austin and Travis County did. John Lawler, the manager for that effort, said Wednesday, “The game has really changed over the last six to eight weeks.”
In order to get people to respond to the census, Lawler and his team were working with different community leaders and talking to people face-to-face, but all that has changed over the last month. Now, he said people are talking about the census at food pantries, online with DJs and on podcasts.
Lawler, who describes himself as “in the trenches,” keeps track of Travis County’s progress compared to other Texas cities. He feels particularly competitive with Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth. On Wednesday morning at one point, Travis had a higher percentage of people counted by the census than Tarrant. But by the end of the day, Tarrant had slipped ahead again, with Tarrant at 51.5 percent and Travis at 48.6 percent. Other cities, including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso, were all a few percentage points behind. However, 52.2 percent of Williamson County’s residents had been counted.
A look at the map will also show you the percentage of residents counted in each county in 2010. In Travis County, for example, that number was 66.2 percent, while in El Paso County it was 70.8 percent.
Valencia wanted to make sure everyone gets this message: “At this point in time, the best thing we can hope for is increased self-response to the 2020 Census. Encouraging people to respond to the census now by going online to 2020census.gov or calling 844-330-2020 or mailing in the form that was sent to households yet to respond is the best way to ensure a complete and accurate count. Austin has been growing at a very fast rate. Therefore, it is important that we encourage self-response to ensure the 2020 Census reflects the reality of that population growth.”
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