A fundamental challenge faces Colorado’s first independent redistricting commissions: How can they do their job — redrawing the state’s political maps — without U.S. Census data?

On Monday, after Gov. Jared Polis convened the congressional redistricting group, the 12 commissioners met for the first time to discuss what to do.

The U.S. Census Bureau has told states that the detailed “block-level” data used every 10 years for political redistricting will be six months late because of anomalies found in the data, blamed on having to complete the census in a shortened period of time because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The official reapportionment data, which exactly counts each state’s population and which decides the gain or loss of congressional districts, is also delayed and would normally already be published. The Census Bureau said the reapportionment data will be ready by April 30.

That data would tell congressional redistricting commissioners how many districts to draw, but exactly where everyone is and where to draw the lines won’t be possible until the granular “block-level” data is ready.

Colorado’s new independent redistricting process, passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2018, includes several deadlines and public meeting requirements that won’t be possible with the data delay.

Commissioners Monday began to discuss some of the possible solutions, but tabled any decision making until future meetings. The commissions still need to adopt bylaws, establish internal protocols and work out the possible contracting of outside attorneys to help with legal issues.

One option is to use preliminary census survey data, which has a margin of error, to work on the maps until the official data are available for making final adjustments. The imperfect survey data comes from the American Community Survey, which is sent to about 2.7% of households each year. In contrast, the decennial census attempts to get a response from every household, allowing for exactly equal political redistricting, as is required for congressional districts.

A chorus of support for that plan has percolated from the state’s political leaders.

A bi-partisan group of state legislative leaders supported the idea in a letter to the commissioners.

“While release of the final census population data has been delayed, it is our belief that the Colorado Congressional Redistricting Commission and its staff can use the best available information ... to begin the preliminary map-drawing and public engagement processes and to increase the likelihood of meeting constitutional deadlines for final approval,” the letter read. “Final adjustments for all districts could then be made once final census population figures are released, which is currently expected by Sept. 30.”

Gov. Polis, in his letter convening the congressional redistricting commission, backed the proposal as well.

“I’m told that reapportionment data will be available as soon as April 30, meaning that we will be able to confirm then whether you are setting district lines for seven or eight congressional districts, although at this point initial projections show us solidly within the range of justifying 8 congressional districts. The fact that you will not have more granular census data until September 30 should not deter you from beginning the substantial public process you are charged to pursue.”

And the co-chairs of Amendment Y and Amendment Z, the voter-approved state constitution amendments authorizing the new citizen redistricting commissions, said they like the idea too.

“It is our belief that the amendments provide the Commission latitude with the process and sufficient data exist for the drafting and public discussion of ‘preliminary plans’ that can be adjusted once final data are available,” they wrote.

Delaying the process, they said, could limit or rush the public engagement components of the new process.

A delay in the process is the other option that’s been raised. The commission is supposed to have a preliminary starting-point map ready by July 7, then hold several public hearings, propose, discuss and adopt changes, then select a map by September 1 and have the approval of the state Supreme Court by November 1. That gives the Secretary of State and county recorders, who administer the elections, time to integrate the new maps for elections. They need time to redraw precincts to conform to the new districts, determine what needs to be on every voter’s ballot and carry out primary elections the in June of 2022.

If the commissioners were to wait until they had the decennial census data, the November deadline would be almost impossible to hit, the commission’s staff have said.

If the November deadline were pushed, that would give elections officials less time to prepare their part of the process.

Jerry Barry, the attorney for the commission, said that no matter what choice the commission makes, it will need to be made carefully. If the commission chooses to use preliminary survey data, he said, the commission would probably want to get the state Supreme Court to approve it.

“I think we will get sued if we just go ahead and start using estimated data,” Barry said. “I believe the use of data besides the redistricting data will require someone to say that we can do that, and I think that ought to be the Colorado Supreme Court.”

Redistricting plans frequently are challenged in court, often by partisans with specific goals to overturn or redraw maps, and sometimes over procedural choices made by those who draw the maps.

The commissioners agreed to discuss the topic further before making any decisions.

Note: This article has been updated to correct the portion of the population that participates in the American Community Survey. 

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