Delayed Census data spurs redistricting crunch

By ELIOT DUKE
Of the Record staff
Posted 6/22/21

Harnett County already faced a tight deadline to get its redistricting plans completed thanks to COVID-19.

Whatever time the county thought it would have to get everything done just got a little …

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Delayed Census data spurs redistricting crunch

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Harnett County already faced a tight deadline to get its redistricting plans completed thanks to COVID-19.

Whatever time the county thought it would have to get everything done just got a little smaller.

County Attorney Dwight Snow updated commissioners on the status of the Census Bureau’s efforts in releasing key data used in drawing up new district maps. Snow previously thought information from the 2020 Census would be available some time over the summer, but it turned out to be a little longer than that.

“The Census Bureau came out last week and said they would not have their data out to anybody before the end of September,” Snow said. “It’s going to be very, very tight.”

Data from a recent census usually became available to the county around March, giving it time to draw up and approve any new redistricting lines well before the deadline of 150 days prior to the ensuing primary season. COVID-19, however, delayed the data’s release, putting the county’s agenda on hold as it waits to find out exactly what the 2020 Census revealed.

Snow said a piece of legislation making its way through the General Assembly — Senate Bill 722 — could give municipalities like Harnett County a few extra weeks, but not much.

“If that bill is passed it will give us an extension to have our plans done by Nov. 17,” Snow told commissioners. “If things hold true and we get our block data at the end of September, you’ve got from that date until the 17th of November to do your plans, get your redistricting done and have it finalized, and have everything done and the lines drawn for the primaries on March 8 [2022].”

Following a joint meeting with commissioners and the Harnett County Schools Board of Education last month, Snow recommended using Tharrington Smith to assist with the process as the firm previously worked with the county on redistricting and is familiar with HCS. Snow, at the time, said both boards should be on the same page.

“Obviously, the game plan would be hopefully going in that both boards would have the same district lines for board of education elections and the county board of commissioner elections,” said Snow. “We have two different plans now. We started out with the same goal [10 years ago] but about halfway through the process, the two boards diverged for different reasons. When they did that, they had final plans adopted, one by the board of education, one by the board of commissioners.”

HCS scheduled a virtual June 30 meeting to hear another firm’s proposal, and Commissioner Chairman W. Brooks Matthews recommended sitting in on the discussion in an effort to align the boards.

“Basically, I think the discussion early on was is there a choice other than Tharrington & Smith [sic],” Matthews said. “I asked [HCS] Chairman Eddie Jaggers if we could participate in that and have a virtual presentation. I’d like for us at the end of that time to be able to make a decision, hopefully the board of education will make a decision, and as we’ve talked earlier, it would be nice if we can agree as to which firm we would like to work with. I would like for us to be prepared to make that decision on the 30th.”

Despite not having the available data, Matthews said much still can be done in preparation of its release.

“There is a lot of foundational work they could be doing,” said Matthews. “And baseline stuff they can be doing so once those numbers do hit they will not be as far behind the 8-ball as they’re going to be at that time.”

Snow agreed that putting something in place now is essential in making sure the county can meet any deadlines and establish the district lines they want if need be.

“You might be saying since we’re not going to have the data before September why does it matter,” Snow said. “Whoever you decide to use, whether it’s Tharrington Smith or somebody else, the key will be when that time comes later on this month, we need to move and move fast. You need to get somebody in line so they can be doing their base work. They’ve got preliminary information from the Census Bureau that will help them make decisions on whether redistricting would be in the offing at all, which it probably will be based on the growth in the county.

“The key is we’re going to have a very short window of opportunity from the end of September to Nov. 17 to get it done. It’s going to be cram-packed.”

Education Attorney Adam Mitchell with Tharrington Smith previously offered the county a combined fee of $20,000 should the two boards agree to the same district line findings. If the boards split, the cost goes up to $15,000 each.

North Carolina added a congressional seat in the House of Representatives following the 2020 Census.

Eliot Duke can be reached at eduke@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2038.

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