How many seats will Georgia gain in the U.S. House of Representatives? Will a new school, supermarket or hospital be built in my area? How much money will my city receive for social programs?
Every 10 years, the U.S. Census provides vital information that can help answer these pressing questions.
But for the first time in 100 years, data from the U.S. Census necessary for redistricting will be coming late.
Originally, the Census Bureau planned to release the latest Census data on March 31, capping off a year of data-collecting that officially began on April 1, 2020. However, due to COVID-19’s impact on data collection, that data won’t be available until Sept. 30.
“The redistricting data includes counts of the population by race, ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino origin), voting age, housing occupancy status, and group quarters population, all at the census block level,” according to a statement from the Census Bureau. “This is the information that states need to redraw or ‘redistrict’ their legislative boundaries.”
The six-month delay is expected to have a profound impact on the upcoming 2022 midterm elections due to the tight redistricting deadlines for Congress.
On the local front, the detailed count tells Hall County “which commission districts need to gain or lose population to equalize the population between districts,” said Katie Crumley, Hall County spokeswoman.
After counties configure their districts, a map must be submitted to and approved by the General Assembly. The governor has the final say, with the power to veto the map, if he chooses.
For most states, Georgia included, the state legislature has primary control of the redistricting process for both state legislative districts and for congressional districts.
Georgia is one of nine states that does not have a deadline for either legislative or congressional redistricting.
Wendy Underhill, director for elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures said there are two main principles local government must adhere to when it comes to redistricting.
While the intricacies of the redistricting process differ for each state, Underhill said all states must comply with federal laws that require equal population requirements and constitutional rules on racial balance through the Voting Rights Act.
Hall County also relies on that data for planning purposes and federal designations, the latter of which is used to make federal funding decisions.
In 2010, the Census counted 179,134 residents in Hall County. In July 2019, the Census estimated the county’s population to be at 204,441 residents, an increase of 13% over a nine-year span.
Phillippa Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall Community Service Center, said that up-to-date 2020 Census data should boost the county’s federal designation from “small urban” to “large urban.”
That change would allow the county to have direct access to federally apportioned funds that can be used for schools, roads, hospitals and public works projects for the next decade. Communities with fewer than 200,000 access federal funding through state agencies instead.
“The 2020 Census will show, correctly, that we are over 200,000 people, which will change our legal designation,” she said. “When that happens those federal funds come straight to us and the benefits of that is — a speedier delivery of funds and having more money to work with.”
Moss said the delays in Census totals shouldn’t affect the expected change in the county’s designation.
However, she did say the impact of accurate and timely Census data has a trickle-down effect from local governance to the private sector.
“Everyone from Realtors to hospitals uses Census data to inform and predict everything from land use to patient needs,” Moss said. “These are important statistics that have a part in shaping much of what happens in the next few years.”
Hall County, for now, will proceed with statistics from the last Census as well as year-to-year projections from the Census Bureau.
“Obviously we want the final count and those give you a complete picture of the county,” she said. “But we trust in the updates from the Census Bureau, and are confident that the final totals will be accurate.”
Crumley said the Census data is often used for grant applications but the county doesn’t expect the delay to cause any projects to be put off.
Additionally, the county geographic information system staff should have a head start thanks to Census Bureau updates throughout the preceding decade.
“Our GIS staff actually has a pretty good idea of what the 2020 numbers will look like, and using our projections, we should have a good sketch of what the final product will look like,” Crumley said. “With a few minor adjustments to make along the way once the numbers are released, the process will remain largely the same, just pushed back a few months.”
As the Census Bureau addresses what they call anomalies in their data — a consequence of the Bureau’s normal operations being upended by a pandemic — the question remains: what can cities and counties do as they wait for Census data to arrive in September?
Underhill said that while the delays in the Census are “less than ideal” for many cities and counties, ensuring an accurate headcount is vital, given what’s at stake.
“The Census is foundational in addressing all types of matters, the most important is that it’s used for the algorithms that allocate federal funds for localities across the nation,” she said. “If there are undercounts, then the distribution of money, distribution of political power, and the number of seats in U.S. House and Electoral College will be unevenly distributed.”
There are silver linings for cities and counties embarking on the estimated six-month wait for Census results, according to Underhill.
“In addition to a detailed and accurate Census report, this is also an important time for cities to reach out for public input and rely on demographers to envision the future of their localities,” she said. “These options aren’t easy and it’ll be hard without handy Census data, but there are possibilities that can be explored until September.”