As Montgomery County’s redistricting commission considers new boundaries for the county, a six-month delay in new U.S. Census data until late September could throw a wrench into the plans.
The census pandemic-related delay causes multiple problems. The redistricting commission will not only have to redraw district lines, but add two new additional districts.
There will be a time crunch on the work since the redistricting’s deadline for a final report and recommendation to the County Council is Nov. 15 — several weeks after the data it needs is expected to be available.
In November, county residents voted to add two district seats on the County Council to the current five. The change will result in a council with seven district seats and four at-large seats — an addition of two district seats.
The census data are used to redraw districts, which is done in the county once every 10 years. following a new census.
The U.S. Census Bureau released a statement on Feb. 12 that the data would be delayed until Sept. 30. The original delivery date was supposed to be March 31.
The redistricting data include counts of population by race, ethnicity, voting age, housing occupancy status, and group quarters population, all at the census block level.
During a meeting on Wednesday evening, some commission members suggested using 2019 census population estimates until the 2020 data arrive in the fall.
Commission member Bruce Goldensohn said during the meeting that the county would be “under the gun” to redistrict the county, as well as create two new districts, in time for the November deadline.
“I don’t know that delay is a possibility for us. I don’t know what the County Council’s power in this issue is, but somebody needs to make a decision as to where we go based on what date we get the final numbers from the census,” he said. “If there’s no way to get it done by Nov. 15 and everybody wants it earlier, then we’ve got a real problem.”
Jeff Zyontz, a senior legislative analyst for the council, told the commission that the county’s charter does not mandate that the commission use the new census numbers to redistrict.
“It does mandate that we have a Nov. 15 recording and does mandate after that that your redistricting becomes the districts if the council has not acted. … We do have the 2019 census estimates,” he said. “You can use that, but the best course of valor all the time is to use the census, of course. We expect that by the end of September. The state of Maryland itself is not going to create districts until January 2022.”
The council has to vote on the commission’s recommendation within 90 days of receiving it, which could take the vote into February. The 2022 election filing deadline for candidates is Feb. 22.
If a candidate’s address is moved from one district into another after boundaries are redrawn, they will automatically be moved into the new district without having to file again.
Commission member David Stein said that even if the census data arrive in late September, six weeks will not be a lot of time to redistrict the county before the November deadline.
“It seems to be the prudent way to do this might be to start working with the 2019 estimates which we have. … and then jigger, after September, those districts that were made with the estimated data to conform with the census data, assuming that we get that at the end of September,” he said. “If we don’t get that by the end of September, then I don’t see how we have any choice but to work with the estimate data from 2019. But I think whether or not we get that data, we should be starting sometime reasonably soon with the estimate data.”
Commission member Dean Ahmad said that by working with the 2019 data, the commission could learn the kind of considerations it needs to work through once it receives the census information. It can also work more quickly that way, he said.
“In the event we don’t get that final data, then we will really be glad we started with the 2019 data early,” he said.
When asked what the deviation could potentially be between the 2019 estimates and the 2020 data, Zyontz said there could be some variation, but it’s difficult to tell.
“In total, 2011 to 2019, it’s an increase overall of 10% in the population or something like that,” he said. “So you’re not dealing with huge numbers. I think it is possible to work with 2019 [estimates] and then adjust once you get the  numbers.”
The commission is scheduled to meet again at 5 p.m. on April 14.
The county charter requires the commission to ensure that each of the districts “shall be compact in form and be composed of adjoining territory. Populations of the council districts shall be substantially equal.”
The criteria that the commission will consider when redrawing include:
● Respect for political subdivisions
● Preservation of communities of interest
● Incumbency protection
● Contiguity (adjoining territory)
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.