With New Census Data, Redistricting Process Could Produce Fair Maps—or Accelerate Inequity

After a Challenging Census Process, Scientists Call for Evidence-Based and Fair Redistricting

Published Aug 17, 2021

WASHINGTON (August 17, 2021)—This month, the U.S. Census Bureau released data from the 2020 Census, a count carried out under unprecedented pressures from the COVID-19 pandemic and attempts at political manipulation by the Trump administration. Now, that long-awaited data will be used to distribute federal spending, shape state and federal policies, and draw new maps for U.S. congressional districts.

In a whitepaper for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), redistricting expert Coleman Harris gives an in-depth look at the delays and complications that made the 2020 Census so challenging, the risks that misuse of census data could pose to democracy, and the best science-based practices for creating new districts based on the census results.

“The census figures aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet—they represent real people in real communities,” said Harris, a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University. “If we don’t make good use of this data, it can undermine our democracy and hurt the communities most in need of fair representation in the political process.”

The whitepaper looks at the ways that the challenging conditions of the 2020 Census could undermine efforts to draw fair maps, with a focus on Michigan and Ohio as states where deadlines for creating maps are running up against delays in getting census data. In both states, voters have instituted new rules to ensure fair maps—through specific constitutional requirements in Ohio and a nonpartisan redistricting commission in Michigan. But the shortened timelines could push them to release maps before they have all the data they need, or could mean that communities don’t have a chance to review or offer comment on maps before they go into effect.

States need flexibility to create maps based on the latest data, Harris said, rather than rushing out new maps based on old data that might not reflect the realities of population trends and demographics. In particular, this puts Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities at risk, since they are more likely to go under-counted and have often been excluded from political participation.

Ultimately, the complications around census data and redistricting could mean that the 2022 elections take place based on flawed congressional district maps that distort political outcomes. And that has consequences that go well beyond lines on a map or names on a ballot.

“Public health depends on the health of our democracy,” said Michael Latner, a senior fellow at UCS and a professor of political science at California Polytechnic University. “We know that communities who don’t have a seat at the table face worse health outcomes and don’t get the resources they need. In many states, the leaders who carry out redistricting ignore science and fairness and use the process to maximize their own political power, insulating themselves from accountability and reducing the tools that their constituents have to advocate for their own interests.”

UCS is mobilizing scientists to advocate for fair and evidence-based redistricting in their own states, as well as supporting federal legislation that would restrict partisan gerrymandering and improve access to voting. More than 900 scientists have signed an open letter calling on the U.S. Census Bureau to use science-based best practices for handling census data, and advocating for fair redistricting.

For more, see Latner’s latest post on the UCS blog, With Census Data Now Available, You Can Help Protect Democracy: Here’s How.