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Census delays raise questions for plans to redraw legislative, congressional districts

Massachusetts voters head to the polls amid pandemic and political maelstrom, voters at Whitman Town Hall practice social distancing amid pandemic. US Census data that Massachusetts officials need to redraw voting districts may not be released until the end of September.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

US Census data that Massachusetts officials need to redraw voting districts may not be released until the end of September — six months later than usual — federal officials said, threatening to scramble the once-in-a-decade effort.

The delay, announced by the US Census Bureau, could have wide ramifications for legislative and congressional elections in 2022 nationally, including in Massachusetts, where lawmakers face the constitutional deadline of redistricting by the end of the year.

“It’s a mess,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, a Brighton Democrat. “It literally has to be done by 2021 everywhere. You have a significant number of other states that have early primary dates. It is a national problem.”


Typically, Massachusetts lawmakers finish the process before November. By law, representatives must live in the new districts a year before their election. In addition, the process typically includes hearings to give the public a chance to comment on the proposed new districts. With the Census delays, it is unclear how it could affect both of those goals, though lawmakers say they remain committed to them.

“I would try to keep this as close to the existing timeline for finishing the job as possible,” said state Senator William N. Brownsberger, who heads the chamber’s redistricting committee. He said his goal is to still hold public hearings to make the process “participatory.”

“We’ll have to start the work before we get the data and basically catch things up,” he said. “There are other steps in the process that may make that impossible.”

The new schedule for releasing the data is also likely to upend another Massachusetts deadline that local officials finish redrawing their precincts — which provide the building blocks for the districts — by June.

The announcement from the statistical agency came as a bipartisan group of US senators introduced legislation that would extend the agency’s deadline for filing the redistricting data to Sept. 30. A senior


Census Bureau official had previously said the redistricting data would be available no earlier than the end of July.

Before the pandemic, the deadline for finishing the redistricting data had been March 31, which gave states months of additional time to redraw their districts. Unlike in previous decades when the data were released to states on a rolling basis, the 2020 redistricting data will be made available to the states all at once, the Census Bureau said in a statement.

The once-a-decade census is used to determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets. It also is used for redrawing state and local political districts and determining the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending each year.

Unlike a decade ago, when Massachusetts lost one of its 10 congressional seats, Galvin said the state is likely to hold on to each of its nine spots in the House. “But even if we keep the seats and there’s an undercount in certain communities, that’s going to be reflected in how the lines are going to be drawn,” he said. “That’s a challenge.”

State Representative Daniel J. Hunt, tapped Friday to lead the House’s newly created committee on federal stimulus and Census oversight, said he and Representative Michael J. Moran — the head of the House’s special committee on redistricting and the chamber’s assistant majority leader — have been reviewing modeling for the redistricting effort.


“While this delay will compress our schedule, Leader Moran and I are confident that we will be able to complete our business by the fall timetable,” said Hunt, a Dorchester Democrat.

The deadline for turning in the apportionment numbers used for congressional seats has been a moving, and litigated, target since the coronavirus pandemic upended the Census Bureau’s head count of every US resident. The numbers were supposed to be turned in at the end of last year, but the Census Bureau requested until the end of April after the virus outbreak caused the bureau to suspend operations.

Bureau officials say they need the extra time to fix irregularities found in the data.

Former president Donald Trump had issued a directive seeking to exclude people in the US illegally from the numbers used for divvying up congressional seats. But President Biden rescinded Trump’s order on his first day taking office last month.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.