Ohio Attorney General Sues U.S. Census Bureau Over Delay Of Redistricting Data

This April 5, 2020, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit.
This April 5, 2020, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit. [Paul Sancya / Associated Press]

The Ohio Attorney General's Office is suing officials at the U.S. Commerce Department and Census Bureau for delaying the release of 2020 census data used to redraw state legislative and congressional districts.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the timeline for providing redistricting data to states would be pushed back from March 31 until September 30, in order to complete quality checks. The bureau blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and changes in its data collection methods for the delay.

"This delay means that the decennial census data will not be available to the State of Ohio as it works to complete its redistricting process by constitutionally prescribed deadlines," reads Ohio's lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose called the new deadline "unworkable," while Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said laws cannot be "arbitrarily changed by administrative fiat." Their lawsuit makes Ohio the first state to sue the federal government over the census delay.

“The federal government has chosen to drag its feet by delaying the release of census data instead of following the law,” Yost wrote in a statement. “The people of Ohio have found ways to meet their responsibilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic – adapting how we run businesses, caring for loved ones, home schooling children – why should the government create a double standard?”

In 2015, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a new bipartisan system to redraw state legislative districts, and the Ohio General Assembly passed a bill in 2018 to create a reformed process for congressional redistricting.

Ohio's congressional map has been a point of contention since 2010, when Republican lawmakers drew new district lines with consultation from national GOP leaders, but with little-to-no input from Democrats. The resulting, unusually-shaped map favored GOP candidates by a 12-4 margin, a ratio that's held in every congressional election since.

Ohio's map was determined to be an "unconstitutional partisan gerrymander" by a federal court in 2019, although U.S. Supreme Court ruled later that year that it did not have jurisdiction to overturn the districts.

The new district-drawing system limits how many times counties can be split, and demands that the minority party sign off on any decision. State lawmakers will make the first attempt at drawing lines, but must get 60% support from the legislature – and approval from half the minority party – to approve a decennial map. If that fails, the map goes to a redistricting committee, before returning to the legislature with more restrictions.

September 1 is the deadline for that state commission to finalize the drawing of state legislative districts. The General Assembly must redraw congressional districts by Sept. 30.

"The Feb. 12 decision, insofar as it forces the State to use alternative data sources, will also cause irreparable harm by instigating high-stakes debates regarding which data to use and by fanning partisan flames when one data source is eventually chosen, no matter how precise and reliable," the lawsuit argues. 

The attorney general's office is seeking an injunction either to prohibit the Census Bureau from releasing Ohio's redistricting data later than March 31, or otherwise to provide the state with population data at the earliest possible date.

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