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As Colorado Prepares To Draw Political Districts And Allocate Tax Dollars, The Census Throws A Wrench Into the Process

A census worker gives a presentation to a small, sparse crowd in Sterling, Colorado's public library.  The PowerPoint Slide behind her reads "Mandated by the Constitution and:" followed by six bullet points about why the census matters.
Adam Rayes
A census worker gives a presentation to the Logan County complete count committee just days before the coronavirus shut down the state.

Updated Monday, 3/1/2021 at 6:22 p.m.

2020 Census results were supposed to come out in December, as mandated by the Constitution. The Census Bureau recently announced plans to release the first-round of results by April 30. Local and state governments and agencies, businesses, nonprofits and researchers rely on this data to get information, access funds and make big decisions.

Disruptions and accuracy concerns swirled around last year’s count and, for some, those concerns remain. The delay may help the Bureau fix some issues, but will also cause problems for the state’s redistricting plans and tax allocation process, and could affect local efforts like fire recovery.

“I don't think that the population and demographic data that we will be receiving will be as accurate as it has been in the past,” said Jeremiah Barry, managing attorney for Colorado’s Independent Redistricting Commission.

The congressional redistricting commission is made up of 12 Colorado voters chosen by legislative leaders, the state Supreme Court and a random drawing. They're evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and independents. The last six chosen commissioners were announced today. Their first business meeting will be March 15.

Commissioners are responsible for redrawing the state’s districts after the census results are released. The goal is to ensure the districts are fairly drawn. Barry is on the commission’s non-partisan staff, responsible for helping the commission get through the process.

The commission must deliver plans for the redrawn districts to the state Supreme Court by Sept. 1. A deadline created with the assumption that data would be delivered in a timely manner.

“I am in hopes that the delay will make the data more accurate,” Barry said. “It obviously poses other issues with the timing of when the redistricting is done, but getting accurate data is probably more important at this point than You know, trying to get it faster.”

READ MORE: Colorado Relies On Accurate Census Counts. Some Groups Are Unsure They’ll Get One In 2020

The first results will have national and state-level population counts. Those numbers are primarily used to determine how many seats in the U.S. House of Representatives each state gets. Based on population growth, Colorado has long been expected to gain an extra representative. So, an eighth congressional district will likely have to be created.

The delay of those results until April 30 at the latest isn’t a concern, Barry said. What is concerning is local-level results will come out by Sept. 30, according to the Bureau. Those numbers are part of what the commission needs to draw the districts.

There is a possibility that data will be released well before then, but that timeline leaves a distinct possibility that the commission's deadline will pass first. And even if data is released by mid-summer, for example, the delay still creates complications.

“The biggest loss would be the input that we would be getting from the public,” Barry said. “We're required to hold at least three public hearings in each of the existing seven congressional districts, and trying to do that in a compact time frame would be extremely difficult.”

Constitutionally, local census numbers are supposed to be out by March 31. Commissioners are supposed to draw rough drafts of possible new district maps within about a month after.

But the commission's final maps won't be based purely on numbers. Their job is to create districts that avoid splitting cities between multiple districts, are as politically competitive as possible, racially fair and aren’t awkwardly shaped (like a big blocky district with thin lines bursting out just to capture specific neighborhoods.) And they have to keep in line with state and federal laws.

Doing all of that partially requires taking those initial maps — which rely mostly on population numbers — and gathering input from residents on them.

What happens if the data comes out after the commission’s final deadline is unclear. Commissioners can’t use census estimates from 2019, for example; the state constitution requires them to use the 2020 count.

State lawmakers are looking to extend the commission’s deadlines, Barry said, adding the deadlines are enshrined in the state’s constitution. Meaning that change will likely require the state Supreme Court’s approval. Something like this has never been done before, as far as Barry knows, but he's hopeful the Supreme Court will move the deadlines.

“It's just a fact that if we don't get the data to do the redistricting by sometime in the fall, we won't be able to meet all of the constitutional requirements,” he said. “Hopefully they will recognize that this is the best way to (do) what the people who voted for those amendments intended to have done, given the current circumstances.”

The commission could end up having to put together the redistricting plans while still holding public hearings. However, the commission's nonpartisan staff are considering the possibility of using census estimates for the initial maps, Barry said. Doing this could allow commissioners to seek public input according to schedule as they wait for the full results to come out.

In the worst-case scenario, the constitution requires the commission’s non-partisan staff to put together its own plan to send to the Supreme Court in case commissioners can't agree on their own plans by the deadline.

“Yes, we have some concerns about the accuracy, but that's what we have to use to redraw the districts,” Barry said. “There's actually nothing that we as the staff or even the commissioners once they're appointed can do about the accuracy of the census data.”

Some of the biggest mistakes in past decades’ counts were in local results. There’s a risk that some counties, cities or towns can get undercounted while others across the state can be overcounted, according to Bureau analysis. In 2010, this meant that the overall state population numbers were accurate but local age, race and other demographic counts were not (an estimated 1 million kids were left off the 2010 count). This is why the Census Bureau needs time to double-check the data.

“We have internally, within our office, deadlines to produce county and municipal population estimates for other programs in the state that we then release online,” said Elizabeth Garner, state demographer at the Department of Local Affairs. “(Census data) helps with funding formulas and things like that.”

DOLA uses local-level census data to help determine where conservation funds should go, for example, or to give the state public health department a basis for estimating birth and death rates. Their deadline is in August. The state can use previous estimates to keep programs running until full counts are available, Garner said.

Garner has long been concerned about the accuracy of the 2020 census count. She also sees the delay in results as a boon, despite whatever scheduling issues it may cause.

“There are entities around the country starting to produce information that they can then use as a check and balance (against the census results),” Garner said. “For example, getting the numbers from K-12 to verify the count of kids and other things like that.”

Colorado is developing its own local data to check the results against, Garner said, adding she does not expect the Bureau to redo on-the-ground counting operations, despite concerns raised about how well that was actually executed last year.

READ MORE: 'No Trespassing' Signs, Language Barriers And Shifting Deadlines: 2020 Census Employees On The Ups And Downs Of Counting Colorado

As Grand County’s Complete Count Committee chair, Alexis Kimbrough spent a lot of 2020 being very concerned about how accurately the county would be represented because its census form response rate was well behind the rest of the state. But toward the end of the count, Grand County’s response rate spiked to nearly 100%.

A dashboard of the regional completion of cases in Colorado. All 4 colorado regions are above 99% done. Colorado South is highlighted on the dashboard and is 99.2% complete as of 10/13.
Census Bureau Dashboard Screenshot
Census Bureau
The Census regional caseload dashboard as of October 13, showing the Census' claim that it was nearly done with counting.

Her concerns about the county’s data are mostly gone. Now, she’s more worried about how the delay in results will impact the East Troublesome Fire-scarred county.

“That data is stuff that we may need going into recovery projects,” she said, pointing to a need for an accurate count of the population within the fire perimeter. “We do have our damage assessments and things of that nature, so we already have data there. But as we look into watershed recovery and things of that nature, having some of that census data could be helpful.”

The county could end up just using 2019 population estimates in the meantime, she said, but having full counts would be preferable.

Corrected: March 16, 2021 at 6:53 PM MDT
Updated to more accurately represent how commissioners are chosen and clarify that the 12 commissioners are just from the congressional redistricting commission. Including the state legislative districting commission, there are 24 commissioners in total.
As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
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