What Does the Census Data Drop Mean?

A pile of U.S. state maps

How does the U.S. Census data release impact the map drawing process that occurs once every 10 years? How do I know if my state is drawing a gerrymandered map? These are all questions being asked this week.

On Aug. 12, 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau released the data from the 2020 census which will be used to redraw voting districts across the country. The maps that are drawn this year will shape our lives and our communities for the next decade.

They impact not just whether there will be equity in representation but also whether there will be equity in the distribution of resources.

Every 10 years, the bureau releases two major types of data: (1) apportionment data which is used to determine how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives, and (2) redistricting data which is used to create voting districts.

The release of this decade’s data has been delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of the census and other factors. The apportionment data was released in April 2021.

The data released today is the redistricting data. Its release officially kicks off the process, known as redistricting, by which states and localities draw the maps of voting districts. These maps are not just for federal congressional representatives but also for local positions such as school board and city council.

No matter the social or political issues that are a voter’s ultimate concern, redistricting is at the root of whether they will be able to effectively advocate for that issue over the next 10 years. Furthermore, the districts that are drawn determine how resources will be distributed—and if that distribution will be fair and just.

Voters should expect that the community districting process would be transparent and map drawers would consider the diverse interests of community members. Far too often, however, politicians manipulate the redistricting process by splitting voters into districts that make it harder to keep those politicians accountable at the ballot box.

They draw the lines in such a way that splits communities of interest and groups of people with common experiences into different voting districts to silence their voices and ignore their needs. This is called gerrymandering.

When done to advantage and entrench power for one political party, it is called partisan gerrymandering. As mapping technology advances, politicians have been able to gerrymander with increasing precision and efficacy.

Redistricting generally involves public hearings and opportunities for members of the public to submit testimony about their communities or propose maps of their own.

Because many states have deadlines to complete redistricting which do not take into account the delayed release of the census data, the redistricting process is likely to be compressed.

There will be less time and opportunity for public participation, so it is even more important that the public be ready and able to participate and weigh in on proposed maps as soon possible.

The same mapping technology that politicians can use to gerrymander can also be used to fight against gerrymandering, and there has never been a redistricting cycle with so many advocacy tools available to the public.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) recently relaunched PlanScore.org, a community empowerment tool that helps grassroots advocates, policymakers and litigators fight for fair maps.

PlanScore.org contains the greatest historical dataset of partisan gerrymandering ever assembled with maps going back to the 1970s, which helps visitors place modern day maps into context.

On PlanScore.org, individuals can upload proposed maps (which can be created on easy-to-use websites like davesredistricting.org or districtr.org) and score them using three different metrics for partisan fairness. This helps people identify partisan gerrymandering using data.

PlanScore.org will also maintain a library of proposed maps so that grassroots advocates can track whether partisan gerrymanders are being proposed by map drawers in their states and fight ones that are unfair.

There are also advocacy resources that can be used to advocate for fair districting moving forward. The best way to avoid partisan gerrymandering is to take the power to draw maps away from partisan actors and to give that power to an independent redistricting commission (IRC).

IRCs ensure that voters pick their politicians, not the other way around. Campaign Legal Center’s DemocracyU provides a variety of resources to help voters advocate for an IRC in their state and ensure that any IRC that is created will be transparent and accountable.

Simone Leeper is a Legal Counsel on CLC's Redistricting team.
Establishing Citizen-Led Redistricting Commissions in the States