Federal officials, in announcing that decennial census data will be delivered six months late, have put officials in Massachusetts and states across the country between the proverbial rock and hard place, robbing them of the time they need to engage in careful and transparent redistricting by pushing them up against deadlines they must meet to be ready for the 2022 elections.
The top priority must be ensuring an accurate count of residents in the Bay State and beyond — even if that means that the redrawing of lines will have to be pushed back. Failing to do so would all but certainly further harm communities hardest hit by the ongoing pandemic, rob certain communities around the state of political clout, and cost the state crucial federal dollars.
Stymied by a confluence of issues, from the pandemic to the Trump administration’s efforts to politicize the census to bureaucratic problems, the US Census Bureau announced earlier this month that the census count data local and state officials need to redraw their maps will be released by Sept. 30 instead of the usual deadline of March 31. To make matters worse, instead of releasing the information on a rolling basis as it becomes available, the bureau said the census numbers will be delivered to all states at the same time.
As a result, it will be tough to impossible for local and state officials in Massachusetts and across the nation to meet their own deadlines for drawing the local precinct lines that form the basis of state and federal representational districts. It also makes it very difficult for some political candidates who, by law, must prove that they reside in the districts in which they run a year before Election Day to meet that requirement.
Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin said the state is probably not in danger of losing a congressional seat as it did during the last reapportionment a decade ago, though he acknowledged that undercounts in certain areas could affect the way lines are drawn in a way that could dilute the political power of certain communities.
And while Trump administration efforts to include a citizenship question on the census questionnaire, and then to exclude some noncitizen residents from the total count, served as roots of the problems the bureau is facing now, Galvin lays most of the blame at the agency’s poor handling of measures to reach those who didn’t respond to the questionnaire. For example, he said, the agency’s heavy reliance on seeking online responses hampered people in communities like Chelsea and Lowell, who are less likely to have online access in their homes than are those in more affluent communities.
Still, he expressed confidence that state officials, by gathering and presenting the federal bureau with supplemental, verifiable information about population counts, will be able to meet state and federally mandated deadlines to be ready for the 2022 election without sacrificing accuracy. For example, Galvin said his office has gathered records from colleges and universities in the state that show students were domiciled in Massachusetts for census purposes even if they traveled home — and out of state — during the pandemic.
“We can take the reliable records that can be used to reconstruct the areas where (census officials) didn’t go door to door properly,” Galvin told the editorial board. “We can try to make sure that every record that proves what that population is, that’s independently verifiable, is accepted” as part of the official count.
Other state officials — including Representative Daniel J. Hunt, who will lead the House’s newly created committee on federal stimulus and census oversight, and Representative Michael J. Moran, who chairs the House’s special committee on redistricting — have also expressed confidence that they will be able to complete their redistricting efforts by fall to meet all timelines.
But in other states, officials aren’t so sure. Officials in Maryland are already preparing for a delay redrawing election boundaries within that state until next year. Elsewhere, like New Jersey, officials said some local elections could be delayed.
Delay is always problematic when it comes to things like elections or receiving federal funding. But getting it right is better than getting it wrong, if done quickly — especially when the stakes involve distribution of the state’s share of $1.5 trillion in federal spending, and drawing precincts and districts that reflect the makeup of the population.
State and local officials must hold hearings and prioritize community involvement so that residents can have faith that they are properly represented and that their voices and votes are not diluted. But above all, lawmakers must get it right, no matter how long it takes.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.