The current district map for the Ohio Senate. Map courtesy the Ohio Secretary of State.
Ohio is now set to receive its U.S. Census data necessary to draw new legislative districts in mid-August, giving the state a short amount of time to abide by a redistricting timeline approved by voters.
Delays in processing census data — due to the pandemic — have made Ohio officials worry the state would not be able to meet its constitutional deadlines to approve the new districts.
The federal government is now agreeing to provide the data to Ohio by Aug. 16.
Ohio sued the federal government in hopes of securing a court order requiring this new Aug. 16 date be met, and on Tuesday received a favorable ruling toward that goal.
Statehouse and congressional legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years to account for changes in population.
States like Ohio use this decennial census data in order to draw maps that have districts with relatively equal numbers of constituents.
This data was supposed to arrive by April 1, which would have given redistricting officials months to draw proposed maps and show them to the general public before being approved.
The U.S. Census Bureau knew ahead of time it would miss this deadline, citing delays caused by the pandemic, and so it announced the data would instead be available by the end of September.
This did not sit well with Ohio lawmakers and other fair maps advocates. In 2015 and 2018, Ohio voters approved new processes to redraw these state and federal legislative districts. Along with requiring better transparency and public input before officials vote on the new maps, the timelines set September deadlines for approving them.
Ohio officials realized it would be impossible to follow these deadlines without having received the redistricting data in the first place.
Finding a solution in court
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sued the government in federal court to force the data to be handed over. A judge dismissed the lawsuit, noting the Ohio Constitution does allow for districts to be drawn using “another basis” if the census data is unavailable.
Yost appealed the decision.
In the meantime, lawmakers proposed various solutions to the problem. Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, briefly considered having Ohioans vote on a constitutional amendment to push back the redistricting deadlines.
Democrats criticized the idea and there was little time to work toward getting this on a statewide ballot in 2021, leading Huffman to drop the proposal.
Democrats proposed seeking remedy through the Ohio Supreme Court — asking the court to push back the deadlines due to the pandemic circumstances.
This may no longer be necessary.
Yost’s appeal took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. On May 11, a day before the two sides were set to argue the case, the federal government pledged to give over the redistricting data well before the end of September.
The government said it would provide the data in a “legacy format” by Aug. 16. This refers to an older format used during the 2000 and 2010 Census cycles. Doing so would save time from waiting for the date to be processed in the new format.
The next day, Ohio Solicitor General Benjamin Flowers told the appellate judges this “legacy” formatted data by Aug. 16 would suffice. Still, Flowers wanted to see a court order holding the government to that promise.
“It’s good that they’re planning to get it done by Aug. 16, but as we’ve seen in the history of this census over the last year, sometimes their plans don’t come to fruition,” Flowers said.
“We didn’t bring suit to try to bully the Census. It’s not just some abstract desire to have them follow the law,” Flowers also argued. “We brought suit because we really do need this data for the redistricting process to go on smoothly.”
On Tuesday, The appeals court reversed the lower court’s dismissal of the case. The judges ruled that the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Ohio should “treat this matter expediently and hold a hearing to determine what remedy (if any) is appropriate.”
Holding the government to the Aug. 16 date would give Ohio officials a few weeks to draw, showcase and vote on the new Statehouse and congressional maps, which will be in place for the 2022-2030 election cycles.
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