Ohio is first state to sue Census Bureau over delay in data

Published 6:30 am Friday, February 26, 2021

COLUMBUS — Ohio on Thursday became the first state to challenge the U.S. Census Bureau’s decision to push back the release of 2020 census figures so more time can be spent on fixing any inaccuracies in the data.

The lawsuit filed by Ohio Solicitor General Benjamin Flowers asks a federal judge in Dayton to restore a March 31 deadline for the Census Bureau to turn over 2020 census figures used for redrawing congressional and legislative districts, instead of a Sept. 30 deadline announced by the statistical agency earlier this month. The lawsuit claims the delay will undermine Ohio’s process of redrawing districts.

Census Bureau officials blamed the need for extra time on operational delays during the 2020 census caused by the pandemic. The dates for releasing the 2020 census data have bounced all over the calendar because of court fights and changes made to adjust to hurdles posed by the pandemic and efforts to comply with federally mandated deadlines.

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The 2020 census data include state population counts used for determining the distribution of congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states, as well as redistricting data used for redrawing congressional and legislative districts.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators recently introduced legislation that would push back the deadline for the state population counts from the end of last year to the end of April and the due date for the redistricting data from the statutorily required March 31 date to Sept. 30.

The redistricting data includes counts of population by race, Hispanic origin, voting age and housing occupancy status at geographic levels as small as neighborhoods, and they are used for drawing voting districts for Congress and state legislatures. Unlike past decades when the data were released to states on a flow basis, the 2020 redistricting data will be made available to the states all at once, according to the Census Bureau.

Ohio law requires a newly formed commission to finalize state legislative districts by Sept. 30 and to hold three public meetings before doing so. Ohio won’t be able to use the 2020 census data to redraw districts if it’s released at the end of September. That will force the state to use alternative figures, setting off a fight over which data to use and “fanning partisan flames when one data source is eventually chosen, no matter how precise and reliable,” the lawsuit said.

“The many people who voted for redistricting reform deserve better than to have their efforts thwarted by a federal government that refuses to do its job,” the lawsuit said. “No doubt, the pandemic has greatly complicated the Census Bureau’s task. But the pandemic has complicated the jobs of firefighters, police officers, and judges too. All those public servants found ways to continue fulfilling their obligations to the public, recognizing that government officials may not shelter in place while their duties go unfulfilled.”

Neither the Census Bureau, nor the Commerce Department, which oversees the statistical agency, responded to email inquiries immediately.

Meanwhile, a coalition of municipalities and civil rights groups that had sued the Census Bureau over concerns about data quality and deadlines said in a court filing Wednesday that they were working toward a potential agreement to their lawsuit with the statistical agency.

A hearing on the lawsuit in federal court in San Jose, California, had been scheduled for Friday, but both sides in a court filing asked for a delay until next month to continue “good-faith discussions concerning the potential resolution of this case.”