California coronavirus threatens to disrupt political redistricting

California could be forced to go to the November ballot or the state Supreme Court for help in response to the federal Census Bureau’s call for a coronavirus-prompted four-month delay in providing its 2020 population numbers to the states, a state senator says.

Those new deadlines, which still must be approved by Congress, mean the California Citizens Redistricting Commission might not get the demographic information it needs to draw new lines for state Assembly, Senate and congressional districts until July 31, 2021, instead of Dec. 31, as now required.

But the commission’s constitutional deadline for completing the new district maps is Aug. 15, 2021.

If those census numbers don’t arrive until July 2021, “it’s not possible to comply with the laws that currently exist and still meet” the deadline two weeks later, said state Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana (Orange County). “Either by litigation or by the ballot, we’re going to have to get that date changed, which means we either go to the (state) Supreme Court or the people.”

It’s not just a matter of plugging the population numbers into a computer and having it shoot out the maps, said Umberg, head of the state Senate Elections Committee and co-chairman of the Senate’s select committee on the census. The commission is required to hold public hearings across the state on the new lines.

The Census Bureau’s delay “is a real problem for California on several different levels,” Umberg said.

Legislators met Thursday to discuss options for dealing with the redistricting deadlines, he added. Decisions will have to be made quickly, since the deadline for putting an initiative on the November ballot is late June.

The Census Bureau, which shut down all its field offices in March in response to coronavirus concerns, has asked Congress to push its Dec. 31 deadline for total population counts to April 30 of next year and its date for more targeted state redistricting numbers to July 31, 2021.

The first group of raw population numbers is used to decide the number of Congress members each state will have for the next decade. The later figures, which show where in each state those people actually live, determine how the local lines are drawn.

The extra time is needed “to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the 2020 census,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said in an April 13 statement.

There are plenty of reasons for the current August 2021 deadline for completing the new maps, said Justin Levitt, an elections law expert at Loyola Marymount University’s Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Census count

While the official census count day was April 1, there’s still time to turn in census information online, by phone or by mail. Details are available from the Census Bureau:

“The date is set so that all legal challenges to the lines can be dealt with before the filing date for the 2022 elections,” he said. “And there will be legal challenges in every state except those that have only one congressman,” where their district is the entire state.

If the state can’t meet the deadline for completing the 2022 redistricting, the courts could step in and draw the maps themselves, as they did in California in 1971 and 1991, when Republican governors vetoed maps approved by the Democratic Legislature. The voter-approved redistricting commission took over the job in 2010.

“Courts can draw the maps, but it’s the last resort,” Levitt said. “I expect the courts would agree to extend the deadlines.”

The census is desperately important to California, which already has put up $187 million to ensure that every resident is counted. Not only could the state lose one of its 53 congressional seats, but the census numbers also are used in a variety of ways to determine how much federal money the state is due.

The coronavirus already has disrupted the count and state officials, along with community groups, are worried that far too many people could be missed.

“The state and other groups have invested a huge amount of money, but we have a whole different challenge this year,” Umberg said, with the coronavirus taking a huge toll on the state, its people and the economy.

“People are losing their jobs, moving out of their homes and maybe living with friends,” Umberg said. “We don’t have those addresses.”

John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @jfwildermuth