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Ohio sues Census Bureau over new redistricting deadline

A sign is seen during a promotional event for the U.S. Census in New York City in September. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

Ohio sued the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday over its decision to delay the release of redistricting data by six months.

The delay will cause “irreparable harms” to Ohio as it faces its own state-mandated deadlines for congressional and state legislative districts, which are drawn up using census data, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) said in a suit filed in the Southern District of Ohio.

The lawsuit seeks to force the bureau to release the data by its original March 31 deadline, or at least sooner than Sept. 30, the date the bureau has said it will release the numbers. The bureau plans to release redistricting data from the 2020 decennial count all at once, unlike in past census years when data for different states was rolled out on different dates.

In a news release, Yost’s office called the March 31 date “critically important for states to make informed decisions for their constituents . . . a postponement until September means that the Ohio Redistricting Commission will be unable to use the data in the 2021 redistricting process.”

Stating that “laws cannot be arbitrarily changed by administrative fiat,” Yost added, “Even if it’s inconvenient, the Census Bureau must do its job.”

A Census Bureau spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau and is also named in the suit, did not respond to a request for comment.

The bureau has said that delays in the collection and processing of census data were unavoidable due to the pandemic. The Trump administration nevertheless pushed the bureau to stick to statutory deadlines and deliver state population counts and apportion House seats before the change of administration, sparking multiple lawsuits. Ultimately, anomalies discovered during data processing made that impossible, bureau officials said.

State total population counts won’t be released until April 30, four months after its original deadline. As such, Ohio’s request for the more detailed redistricting data a month earlier is “disingenuous,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee.

“The Census Bureau has been diligent in keeping state officials informed about delays in processing and tabulating the data for apportionment and redistricting,” Lowenthal said, adding, “Many states have taken steps to modify their timelines.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures last month recommended solutions for states such as Ohio that face either a statutory or constitutional deadline for drawing their legislative or congressional districts, or both.

These include:

●Redistricters can petition the state courts to seek relief from their statutory or constitutional redistricting deadlines (as California did last year).

●States can pass new statutes or amend their constitutions to eliminate their redistricting deadlines or create exemptions from those deadlines (as New Jersey did last year).

●States where the redistricting deadline is the filing deadline for primary elections can

alter those deadlines (as Virginia has done in the past).

●States can pass new laws creating backup commissions that could be tasked with redistricting if it cannot be done by the statutory or constitutional deadline.

None of the recommendations included suing the bureau to release data earlier than it had planned.

Thomas Wolf, senior counsel and Spitzer fellow with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said, “The bureau needs the full time in order to ensure that the data is full, fair, and accurate, both for the apportionment and the redistricting. ... It should be allowed to proceed.”