It was recently announced that Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is suing the U.S. Census Bureau over the delay in delivering 2020 Census data, which will be used in the state’s redistricting process. While frustration over the delays is understandable, the state should consider pursing other avenues to ensure the data used in redistricting is reliable and accurate, while also honoring the new redistricting process approved by voters. Outlined below are some key considerations the state and administration should make given the delays and challenges around the data.
The Census Bureau has good reasons for delaying the data.
As I wrote in May 2020, the pandemic could not have hit at a worse time for census operations. At that time, field operations were delayed by more than two months, and at each stage of operations, the bureau faced additional delays and challenges. While self-response and follow-ups with non-responsive households were slated to end August 1, 2020, they did not end until mid-October 2020. Tabulating the responses and ensuring data’s validity is a huge undertaking in a “normal” census year, but nothing about 2020 was normal. The pandemic also created unprecedented challenges in counting hard-to-count groups, such as people experiencing homelessness, transient people and college students. There were also anomalies found in the data during processing that could have caused additional delays. The bureau needs additional time to process the data and ensure that what is delivered to states for redistricting is reliable. Given that, if there are ways to work with the Census Bureau to request that it prioritizes delivering data to states with earlier redistricting deadlines, that could help relieve the burden on Ohio.
The pandemic also created unprecedented challenges in counting hard-to-count groups, such as people experiencing homelessness, transient people and college students.
The state should explore ways to extend the redistricting deadlines, rather than rushing the data delivery.
Ohio is one of only seven states with constitutional redistricting deadlines in 2021. This is no doubt a hurdle, as amending the constitution would likely be too onerous in this time frame. However, the state could file a lawsuit for relief from the redistricting deadlines to allow the time needed to follow the constitutionally-mandated redistricting process with a new start date after the data is delivered. Depending on timing, this could interfere with 2022 primary elections, but the primary could also be delayed, allowing plenty of time to plan for midterm elections.
Rather than focusing on this lawsuit, the state must take action and plan for this later-than-desirable data delivery on the back end. Being fully prepared to conduct required analysis the moment the data arrives would help. Additionally, waiting for the 2020 Census redistricting data is preferable to relying on “alternative” data, which is generally less accurate. Using other data sources to draw district boundaries could lead to additional legal challenges, leaving Ohio’s electoral map in limbo.
It is important to see this process through to the best possible outcome – fair districts drawn based on accurate data.
These will be our districts for the next 10 years- it is important to get them right.
Much of my census advocacy work in 2019 and 2020 was driven by the principle that accurate decennial census data is key to ensuring that all Ohioans get the representation they deserve, and to guiding appropriate amounts of federal funds in the state. Given all of the hurdles that the census and grassroots community groups have faced, met and overcome over the past year, it is important to see this process through to the best possible outcome – fair districts drawn based on accurate data. We will live with these districts for the next decade. We don’t want to give them short shrift.
Taking all of this into consideration, the graphic below outlines what a delayed redistricting timeline could look like. If the redistricting data had been delivered according to schedule at the end of March 2021, the state would have had five months to draw new state legislative districts, and six months to draw congressional districts. This suggested timeline offers five months for the state to follow its new redistricting process after the data is delivered at the end of September 2021. A timeline like this could make redistricting workable even with the census data delays.
It is worth noting that this suggested delay goes against the Ohio Constitution, but it is still worth consideration. The Census Bureau will be late delivering the data, which also goes against federal statute. As others, such as the Ohio League of Women Voters, have pointed out, a judge would likely grant the state leniency because it would be impossible to follow the constitutional timelines with the data being so delayed. We will continue to track this important issue as it develops.
 The Ohio Constitution requires the state to use decennial census data for redistricting, but does allow for use of alternative data if census data is not available. The state’s lawsuit contends that if the census data is not delivered on schedule, the only option is to use alternative data such as census estimates or commercially available mapping data.