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Cities, groups aim to stop Ohio's push for early census data

2020 Census Redistricting
Posted at 2:33 PM, Mar 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-15 14:36:32-04

A coalition of cities, counties and civil rights groups sued the U.S. Census Bureau last year to stop it from ending the 2020 census early out of fear a premature finish would undercount minority communities. Now, that coalition is attempting to block the state of Ohio from trying to force the statistical agency, under a new administration, into releasing data used for drawing congressional and legislative districts earlier than planned.

The coalition over the weekend asked a judge to let it oppose a lawsuit Ohio filed last month in federal court. Ohio became the first state to challenge the Census Bureau’s decision to release redistricting data at the end of September 2021 instead of at the end of this month, as required by law.

The Census Bureau said it needed the extra time because of delays caused by the pandemic as well as other challenges like hurricanes, wildfires, civil unrest and data processing anomalies. But Ohio asked a judge to force the bureau to release the redistricting data by March 31, claiming that a delay until September will undermine Ohio’s process of redrawing districts.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Rose on Monday granted the coalition’s request to file a friend-of-the-court motion opposing Ohio’s demand for an early release of the redistricting data.

In a court filing over the weekend, Ohio called the delay illegal but said it would be open to getting its redistricting data in July if the state can’t get it by the end of March.

In their filing over the weekend, the cities, counties and civil rights groups said that any decision by the court in Ohio requiring the Census Bureau to turn in redistricting data by March 31 would violate a judge’s order in their case in federal court in San Jose, California. In the San Jose case, the coalition and attorneys for the Biden administration reached an agreement approved by a judge that no 2020 census data will be released before April 16.

The agreement in San Jose deals with apportionment data — numbers that will determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets. The redistricting data is used to draw those congressional seats as well as legislative seats. But the Census Bureau can’t release the redistricting data without first reporting the apportionment numbers, the coalition said in papers asking the court to deny Ohio’s request.

Responding to Ohio’s lawsuit, the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, said last Friday that it would be impossible for the Census Bureau to hand over the redistricting data by the end of March and that the Ohio could use alternative data sets to redraw districts. Ohio should blame the lack of flexibility in its own redistricting schedule and election dates rather than the Census Bureau’s pandemic-related delays, Biden administration attorneys said.

“The fact that the census data is not available to Ohio on the schedule it prefers, simply cannot harm the State if it can still redistrict by the time of its next elections,” said the Biden administration attorneys.

The census data are used not only to determine congressional seats and Electoral College votes but also the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending each year.

The coalition of local municipalities, tribal governments and civil rights groups sued the Trump administration in federal court in San Jose last year in order to stop the 2020 census from ending early out of concern that a shortened head count would cause minority communities to be undercounted. Attorneys for the coalition had argued that the head count and data processing schedule were shortened in an effort to make sure President Donald Trump was still in office so that his apportionment order to exclude people in the country illegally could be enforced.

In one of his first acts in office, President Joe Biden’s rescinded Trump’s apportionment order. Since the change in administrations last January, coalition attorneys and lawyers with the Biden administration have been working toward a settlement that could be announced as early as this week.

The state of Alabama also has sued the Census Bureau in an effort to get it to release the redistricting data by March 31. Alabama’s lawsuit also takes aim at a new method the Census Bureau is using to protect the privacy of participants in the 2020 census, arguing that it produces faulty numbers.