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Dispute over census tallies could muddle states' redistricting efforts

Hundreds of state legislators across the United States are uncertain about their political futures, waiting to see if they might be redistricted out of their offices on the basis of the 1980 census.

The always-suspenseful wait while new districts are shaped is even more so this time, since court challenges to the US Census Bureau's figures may delay the process, or cause redistricting to have to be done all over again.

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At issue in two current suits is (1) whether minorities and others in Detroit , New York, and more than a dozen other cities were undercounted, as the challengers contend, and (2) whether adjustments will be necessary.

Both suits, in which federal district judges ruled against the Census Bureau, have been appealed to higher courts. Hearings are expected next month.

Thus far, there have been at least 33 suits in 17 states challenging either the 1980 census figures or the way the head count was conducted. Most are still pending.

In late December, the US Supreme Court cleared the way for the Census Bureau to release state-by-state totals that will be used to reapportion both congressional and state legislative districts.

Under federal law, the Census Bureau has until April 1 to provide states with these figures.Ordinarily, those states with special needs -- such as early constitutional or statutory deadlines for reshaping districts -- are accommodated earlier. Census Bureau officials anticipate no problems in meeting the April 1 deadline and say they hope to have the complete breakdowns for the first few states available by early March.

Nevertheless, officials in at least five early-deadline states -- Arkansas, New Jersey, South Dakota, Vermont, and Virginia -- are concerned.

"We could be in a real jam if there is any delay in getting the population breakdowns," warns Sam Alito, director of the New Jersey Legislative Research Division, noting that current state law provides a June primary for next November's legislative election in which candidates will run in new districts. If the population breakdown is delayed beyond next month, there may not be enough time for the special 10-member commission which handles the districting to handle its assignment.

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Significant population shifts within New Jersey -- from the northeastern to the southern portion of the state -- could make it especially difficult for the bipartisan panel to come up with 40 new legislative districts, meeting "one-man, one- vote" standards.

A measure postponing this year's New Jersey primary until September, to ease the potential redistricting crunch, is being readied for consideration by lawmakers.

Similarly hard-pressed is Virginia, where candidates for the House of Delegates will be elected this year.Redistricting there is the responsibility of state lawmakers, whose current session is scheduled to end Feb. 21.

Redistricting thus will have to be done during a special session, starting April 1, explains Joan Smith of the state's Legislative Services Division. The later the population breakdowns become available, the tougher it may be to get everything done on time, she cautions, pointing out that the new districts will have to be approved by the US Department of Justice in accordance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Such clearance, she says, could take up to 60 days.

Equally apprehensive over not getting the census figures on time are South Dakota officials, who note their state constitution mandates redistricting not only every decade, but in years ending in the figure "1." And it must be done during the regular legislative session. This year's session, which began Jan. 6 , can legally run only 40 days.

Shaping new legislative districts from less-than-complete population breakdowns may be necessary if the Census Bureau is unable to turn over the needed data, some South Dakota officials suggest.

While declining to speculate on what might happen, Wesley Tchetter of the state Legislative Services staff points out that some districts have lost as much as 18 percent of their population while others have gained significantly in residents. Under South Dakota law, if lawmakers cannot agree on a new legislative division by April 1, a five-member commission takes over the job.

In all, 29 states require legislative redistricting based on the 1980 federal census, either by lawmakers themselves or special bipartisan panels. Most of the rest must do the job either next year or in 1983.

Notable exceptions are Kansas and Massachusetts, which base districts on their own mid-decade censuses, instead of the federal head count.

If plaintiffs in the population undercount suits are successful, census officials have told the courts, it would take until next September to adjust state totals and until November to provide figures for territorial subdivisions (which are usually the building blocks for legislative districting).

While some states might be able to slide around constitutional requirements to redistrict, Illinois lawmakers might have no choice but to do the best they can with the figures they have. An initiative petition approved on this November's ballot calls for a one-third reduction in the number of seats in the Illinois House of Representatives, starting in January 1983. The new districts must be in place by next year.

In many instances, however, annual lawmaking sessions are constitutionally limited to less than 100 days, making it difficult if not impossible to keep in session beyond earl y spring.

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