Congressional redistricting committee meets for first time in 2021, expects long delay

BY MARK OSSOLINSKI Missouri News Network

The much-anticipated process for determining Missouri’s new congressional district boundaries kicked off Tuesday, though that process comes with the expectation of a massive delay.

In the year’s first meeting of the House Special Committee on Redistricting, Rep. Dan Shaul, R-Imperial, told members to be prepared for an “intense” hearing schedule in the fall, as a result of the U.S. Census Bureau’s February announcement that it will not deliver redistricting data to states until Sept. 30.

Like all states, Missouri relies on the Census’ demographic data to redraw its federal and state legislative district maps every 10 years. The redistricting committee has at its disposal several administrative staff members, including a demographer and the House general counsel, to assist in the map-drawing process for congressional districts.

The Census Bureau was originally scheduled to send redistricting data to the states by April 1. The 6-month delay is a result of hurdles stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s changes to the Census schedule last year.

While the delay could cause considerable headaches to states whose laws impose strict deadlines for redistricting, the Missouri Constitution enforces no such deadline for redrawing the state’s congressional districts.

Still, the committee will need to convene multiple times via extra sessions following the Census data’s fall release in order to complete the map-drawing process before Missouri’s congressional candidate filing period begins in February of next year.

Shaul indicated his intention for the committee to do so, bluntly telling members at Tuesday’s introductory meeting, “You need to make a commitment for this fall.”

The prospect of congressional candidates filing in early 2022 without knowing the boundaries of the districts they will be running to represent adds pressure to what is already a contentious and highly politicized redistricting process.

Shaul attempted to remove some of that partisan element at the outset, asking members to refer to congressional districts strictly by their district numbers and not by the names of the members of Congress who represent them.

“This is about creating districts, not kingdoms for individuals,” he said.

Still, there is little doubt about the inherently political nature of the decennial redistricting process, which gives the political party in control of the state legislature the upper hand in drawing maps that favor its own candidates for the next decade. In the case of Missouri in 2021, that is Shaul’s party.

The next meeting of the committee is scheduled for March 23, following the state legislature’s spring recess.

Census delays will also impact the timeline for the separate drawing of new state legislative district maps, which is controlled instead by bipartisan commissions nominated by the two major parties and appointed by the governor.

Under the statutory provisions of Amendment 3, which Missouri voters approved last November, the state parties cannot forward their nominations for the state House and Senate redistricting committees to the governor until the Census Bureau has sent state population counts to President Joe Biden.