South Dakota lawmakers begin redistricting amid uncertainty

March 9, 2021 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — As South Dakota lawmakers took their initial steps Tuesday to redraw legislative districts, they were warned they will likely be working on a tight timeline and with census data that is less accurate than in previous years.

Lawmakers held their initial meeting in the nearly yearlong process to discuss a timeline and potential pitfalls for redistricting. But instead of the months that lawmakers have had in previous years to pore over census data, they will likely only have weeks once they receive the data to meet a Dec. 1 deadline. The U.S. Census Bureau has said it won’t be delivering data used for redrawing districts until the end of September.

But even that data has questions surrounding it. Concerns have been raised that the 2021 census is less accurate than previous censuses, mostly due to the pandemic, said Matt Frame, a lawyer with the Legislative Research Council, which is tasked with guiding legislators through redistricting.

He told lawmakers, “Even if this committee does everything correct, there’s still a potential that our maps would get overturned simply on this fact, because there could be a nationwide lawsuit about the quality of the data.”

Frame also warned lawmakers that the new districts must ensure minority populations have adequate representation in the government.

But Sen. Troy Heinert, a Democrat who represents a legislative district that includes the Rosebud Indian Reservation, said that the pandemic has disrupted the census process. Several tribes in the state enacted lockdowns during the pandemic.

“I know many tribes during the census process, those census workers were pulled, so there may or may not be a very accurate census in tribal land,” he said.

Heinert questioned whether the redistricting committee could use other data sets such as voter registration data. Lawmakers are required to use the census data as the basis for their decisions, but can also lean on other data sets to draw the legislative map.

In October, lawmakers will tour the state for three days and hold a series of hearings. They are also considering redistricting software that would allow people to comment on proposed boundaries.

Sen. Mary Duvall, the Republican chairing the committee, said her goal was “to make this just really open and transparent.”

Democrats, whose numbers in the Capitol have been reduced to their lowest in over 60 years, hold just two seats on the redistricting committees.

If the Legislature is unable to meet its Dec. 1 deadline to approve new districts, the state Supreme Court would have to step in to complete the process.