The Maine State House is seen beyond the leafless trees in the waning weeks of autumn, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The U.S. Census Bureau may not deliver detailed population counts to states until long after a key deadline for Maine’s redistricting plans, throwing a wrench into a process that will shape the state’s political landscape for the next decade.

Maine, like every other state, is required to redraw legislative and congressional district boundaries every 10 years to adjust for population changes. That process is expected in 2021 to only result in small changes, including the shifting of a few towns from the 1st Congressional District to the swing 2nd District, the latter of which has lost population over the past decade.

But the census data needed to draw the new districts is not expected to be finalized until after a deadline for the Legislature enshrined in Maine’s Constitution has passed, as the federal agency has struggled with delays. Legal experts say the next steps are uncertain. The Legislature may punt the process to the state’s high court as a result.

“There are a lot of open questions now, considering the census hasn’t been completed in a timely fashion,” said Marshall Tinkle, a Portland lawyer who wrote an often-cited book on the Maine Constitution, “and I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

Census officials had warned for months that the coronavirus pandemic, which restricted the agency’s deployment of on-the-ground staff, would delay results, but it said the additional time was necessary to ensure an accurate count. In addition to redrawing districts, census data are used to determine the allocation of federal funds across a number of programs.

The agency said this week that its release of the number of U.S. representatives each state will get, originally scheduled for late December, will not happen until the end of April. Maine is assured to have two U.S. representatives again, so the timing of that data is less of a concern here. But more detailed data needed for redistricting, originally set to be released at the end of March, will not be available until July 30 at the earliest, the agency said.

That poses a problem for redistricting, as the Maine constitution sets a June 11 deadline for the Legislature to approve new congressional and legislative maps. A nonpartisan 15-member advisory commission is responsible for drawing districts prior to that based on the census.

The Legislature, though not bound by the commission’s plan, must approve new maps with a two-thirds vote in both chambers. If lawmakers fail to approve a plan by the June deadline, the task goes to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which then has 60 days to decide on maps.

Even that deadline could pose a problem. The Constitution suggests that the court “shall take into consideration plans and briefs filed by the public” during the first 30 days of that period. But the census data would not be expected during that time frame. Further delays could mean not even the court would have access to population data in time to come up with maps.

Yurij Rudensky, a redistricting lawyer with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, referred to that end point as a legal “black hole.” There is no legal guidance or precedent for what would happen next, but he said the most practical thing would be for the courts or the Legislature to find a way to move the redistricting commission’s work to the fall, preserving the way the system was intended to work and while still developing maps in time for next year’s midterms.

“I think the most prudent thing to do would be to adapt the existing system, and to shift the deadlines to correspond to when the data is being made available,” Rudensky said.

He noted that, one way or another, Maine would have to come up with new maps ahead of the 2022 elections, or the state could face lawsuits over unequal representation with current districts no longer hewing to population shifts. For now, next steps are unclear. A Democratic legislative spokesperson said the 15-member redistricting commission has not been established.

Maine is not the only state facing issues with redistricting in light of the census delays. California and Delaware are also set to miss legal deadlines. Only one state — New Jersey, which holds midterm elections in odd years — moved back its deadline in anticipation of the problem, Rudensky said.

“States will have to draw new districts ahead of 2022,” he said. “So not redistricting isn’t really a choice.”