In two weeks, the U.S. Census Bureau is expected to release long-delayed population data, setting off a sprint for legislators on Connecticut’s redistricting committee to complete the constitutionally required process of remapping state voting districts.
Once a decade, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is required to adjust the lines of congressional and legislative voting districts to reflect the results of the U.S. Census survey and ensure voters in each district get equal representation.
This year, that process has been stalled by delays at the Census Bureau, which struggled last year to conduct its nationwide population count in the midst of a global pandemic. The agency pushed back until Aug. 16, the release of numbers that had been slated for the end of March.
The delay left the eight-member panel charged with remapping the lines with little to do but watch the approach of a Sept. 15 deadline for drafting a plan for new maps. But that’s about to change.
“Aug. 16 is the date the Census Bureau is targeting for release of all the data. That’s the starting line of the sprint that is about to happen around redistricting,” Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, said in a phone interview last month.
Haddad, along with Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, are chairs of the bipartisan commission, which has so far only met for a remote organizational meeting back in April. At the time, legislators conceded the chances of drafting a plan to meet the September deadline looked remote. But the panel’s schedule is built with some flexibility and missing deadlines is not uncommon.
Ten years ago, with no pandemic or federal delays to blame, the redistricting committee repeatedly required additional time to finish its work. It added a ninth member, rebranded itself a commission and extended its deadline. Then it missed those extended deadlines. The redistricting plan was ultimately settled with the help of the state Supreme Court early the following year.
The 2011 committee faced fewer challenges than this year’s group will be forced to confront. By late July, that panel had already wrapped up public hearings in Connecticut’s five congressional districts aimed at drawing feedback from voters.
Although this year’s committee has yet to schedule public hearings, Haddad said he still plans to have them. He said they may contain some virtual components to allow participation from those wary of gathering amid the ongoing risk of the COVID-19 virus.
“I still feel strongly we should get out and be in different parts of the state as much as possible and as much as public health officials say is possible,” Haddad said. “Between Labor Day and Sept. 15, I would guess, we’ll do public hearings around the state and collect as much public input as we can, prior to really sitting down and starting to draw lines.”
The broad strokes of Connecticut’s census results are already known. The state saw a modest population increase over the last 10 years. Although Connecticut was one of the slowest-growing states, it will keep its five congressional seats, thus avoiding the need for any earthshaking changes to its district maps.
But while the overall population climbs slowly, growth can occur in some areas as other regions decline. Fairfield County is expected to see a rise in population while eastern Connecticut may hold steady or drop. In either case, the lines will need to be adjusted and smaller-scale adjustments can be among the most contentious.
“A change of a thousand people in a particular area of Stamford makes a big difference to the House district lines in a community like that,” Haddad said. “The challenge gets greater as the districts get smaller.”
Meanwhile, the committee will be the first to implement a new law adopted this year which requires incarcerated people to be counted as members of the voting districts where they lived before they were locked up. In the past, they have been counted in the district which houses the correctional facility where they are incarcerated.
For years, opponents have called this practice “prison gerrymandering,” because it reduces the political influence of the largely Black and brown cities where many incarcerated people are from and it inflates the representation of typically smaller towns where prisons are often located.
The bill required the Department of Correction to submit a report by June 30 to the Office of Policy and Management listing the home addresses of most inmates so the Census data could be adjusted prior to the redistricting process. The Correction Department missed that deadline but turned over the report to OPM late last week. As of Monday, the office was reviewing the report.
Connecticut’s prison population has declined dramatically in the last decade. In June it stood at 8,965 people, roughly half of the 17,520 people who were incarcerated in June 2011. But the adjustment will likely still have a significant impact in state legislative districts that contain prisons.