AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The U.S. Census Bureau has announced yet another major delay for the 2020 census result. This time, the bureau says the data needed to redraw voting maps won't be available until the end of September. That's about a six-month delay past the usual schedule. That holdup could throw elections around the country into chaos. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers the census. He joins us now from New York. And, Hansi, give us a little more detail here on what's at stake for elections.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Well, for many state and local redistricting officials across the country, this means they have a lot less time to redraw the voting districts that determine, for the next 10 years, the area's members of Congress represent, areas state legislators represent, even areas that school board members represent. And another thing to keep in mind here is that, you know, the bureau is still trying to clean up the mess made by Trump officials who made last-minute schedule changes to the census schedule.
So there is this tension point between the Census Bureau having enough time to make sure the data are as accurate as possible and states and localities meeting redistricting deadlines. And a big concern among redistricting experts right now is that this could create ideal conditions for gerrymandering. And I talked to Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director for the government watchdog group Common Cause. Let's listen to what she said.
KATHAY FENG: There is a quiet conversation going on in legislatures right now about whether the delay actually might be a helpful game-changer to allow them to pass midnight bills (laughter) and do the dirty work outside of the scrutiny of the public.
CORNISH: Two different descriptors there - helpful game-changer and dirty work. What does this actually look like when it comes to redistricting?
WANG: Well, we could see, for example, state lawmakers using this time crunch as an excuse for rushing to approve maps that don't fairly represent all communities. Maybe they're designed to benefit one political party over another. The fear right now is that public hearings' transparency will fall by the wayside. But I should point out, some states have been tracking signals from the Census Bureau for months now that this redistricting data would likely be late because of the pandemic and the Trump administration's interference.
New Jersey, for example, is set to hold elections this November, and New Jersey voters passed a referendum to amend the state constitution so that it can delay drawing new voting maps by two years. And last summer in California, the state Supreme Court granted deadline extensions for finalizing new maps. So we'll see what other states and local governments do now, now that they know that the Census Bureau's confirmed this new release date for redistricting data - September 30.
CORNISH: What has the Census Bureau said about what's causing the delays?
WANG: The bureau says it needs more time to run quality checks, that, you know, this is a process that started late because of COVID-19. The bureau has a lot of duplicate and incomplete responses from last year's census, and there's not enough time under this usual schedule to run all those quality checks. And what's been very challenging for the bureau are these records from colleges, for example, that look like the schools misreported all student residents living in just one dorm. And you have to remember - all this information, you know, gathered in the middle of the pandemic, lots of people moving around and lots of confusion about where to get counted for the census. So the bureau says it needs time to sort through all of that.
CORNISH: And yet these aren't the only delays. What's the status of some of the other things you're looking into?
WANG: Well, last month, the bureau confirmed there's also delays for new state population counts that determine each state's new number of votes in the House of Representatives and Electoral College for the next 10 years. And I'm going to be watching to see when Congress will pass a new law that will formally extend the census deadlines. The bureau says those apportionment counts won't - are now expected by the end of April.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covering the census. Thank you for your reporting.
WANG: You're welcome, Audie.
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