The disappointing "rabbit-trail" census

Published April 29, 2021

By Tom Campbell

The 2020 decennial census was problematic from the beginning and could lead North Carolina down a rabbit-trail of problems.

There were issues from the get-go, as the count was launched in the throes of a pandemic, when most of us were confined to our homes. It differed from previous efforts by attempting to eliminate the use of paper to collect data, instead requesting us to go online to register. States like ours, where access to the Internet is problematic, suffered.
As if the pandemic and the new self-reporting system weren’t problems enough, the Trump administration tried to insert politics into the count by insisting the survey include a question of a person’s citizenship. Court cases ensued and it wasn’t until June that the US Supreme Court finally ruled citizenship questions could not be included.
Throughout the spring and early summer months demographers at Carolina Demography warned us that North Carolina’s response rate to the census was low, especially in rural areas and among people of color. As late as August they reported that four out of ten households had not been counted, lower than the national average and below where we were in the 2010 census.
Census officials promised us that non-response follow-up (NRFU), live census takers going door-to-door, would assure the count was accurate. Designed to begin in late spring, the NRFU was hampered by a lack of workers and the virus. It didn’t begin until summer and was discontinued before completed. All these confusions, missteps and problems guaranteed the results would be delayed and assured that we would question their accuracy.
North Carolina got a good news, bad news report when preliminary data was released last week, again months late. The good news is that we gained a reported 900,000 new residents in the past ten years and now officially have 10,439,388 people living here. More than half of the gains came from Wake, Mecklenburg and Durham counties. The bad news is that this number is some 100,000 fewer than even the census bureau estimated last summer, causing us to question the accuracy of the count. We gained a 14th congressional seat, one of six states to gain. But the undercount, if accurate, will mean we receive fewer federal dollars than we would be qualified to receive.
More importantly, North Carolina won’t get the final census data until late August. These final numbers are necessary to determine congressional and legislative districts, as well as districts for many of our cities and towns. Federal law requires these district lines be redrawn every ten years, following new census data.
Here’s the problem: North Carolina’s primary elections are scheduled for March 8, 2022, which means that candidates must file to run by early December. This compressed schedule allows only 60-90 days for our legislature to deliberate, redraw and publish district boundaries, then for candidates to decide whether or not to run.  
Not to worry, legislative leadership assured us. “We should have time and ability to get things resolved so that the (March) election can go forward as planned,” Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger said. There’s no question that with computer aided design, maps can be drawn much faster than in the past. We know we can get fast, but can we get both fast and fair?

 North Carolina has a colorful history of gerrymandering political districts and, despite repeated requests to set up an impartial redistricting process, our lawmakers have steadfastly refused to do so. We don’t need more backroom maps, drawn by a handful of people in the dark of night that are designed to benefit one political party over the other. Legislative leaders have assured us the redistricting process will be fair. It’s time to demonstrate good faith and transparency.  
Here’s my spin: North Carolina needs to move the date of the 2022 March primary elections to our traditional first Tuesday in May. This would allow for more potential delays, while also providing more breathing room. A more deliberative and inclusive process might forestall the inevitable lawsuits that generally result and the added necessity to draw even more maps. We don’t have to go down that rabbit-trail again.