Mapping team at OU a part of redistricting process

By: - August 9, 2021 12:40 am

The Ohio House of Representatives district map. Source: Ohio Secretary of State

Before the Ohio Redistricting Commission was appointed, before advocacy groups started mobilizing for fair districts, before even the last presidential election, a team at Ohio University was working toward their own map-drawing goals.

Back in 2017, a team of about 20 staff and students led by Michael Finney and Dr. Jason Jolley at OU’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service started working with board of elections across the state to map voting precincts. These maps would then be used to create boundaries for the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct their 10-year census in 2020.

“Really it just helps to have a more accurate relationship between the census data itself and the precincts here in the state,” Finney told the OCJ.

Michael Finney.
Photo courtesy of Ohio University

Having teams from local universities do the initial work provides a buffer for the information, allowing it to come out without fear of bias by one political party or another.

“We can create the data set and provide it to the state in a nonpartisan way,” Finney said. “That way everyone is working with the same set of data.”

The process is a tedious one, which involves tracking changes in voting precincts over time, making presentations to election boards to educate them on the work, and keeping in touch with the census bureau to make sure everything is working smoothly.

In March 2020, they turned those aligned maps over to the census bureau to be used during their count a month later. Finney and Jolley received a set of mapping files back from the census bureau, and they now await the data from that census count, so they can take the data and link it to their already completed precinct information.

That data will be sent to the state’s Legislative Service Commission as a “unified redistricting database,” as Finney calls it, so state leaders can redraw lines for state General Assembly representative districts and those for the Congressional districts as well.

The team is still awaiting census data, which ordinarily would have shown up by March of this year, because of delays in census collection related to the COVID-19 pandemic and a delay prompted as members of former President Donald Trump’s administration asked for an extension of 120 days.

The census data, which includes 2020 census population counts by race, Hispanic origin and voting age, along with data on housing units in the country, is now set to be released on August 12 in the “legacy format,” one that has been used for 20 years.

Dr. Jason Jolley.
Photo courtesy of Ohio University

The data won’t be released in its new form, what the Census Bureau calls an “easier to use format” until September 30, according to the Census bureau timeline.

The first deadline to adopt a redistricting plan is set for September 1.

Finney has plenty of experience, having worked on previous redistricting data projects multiple times, with the changes mainly coming from the technology.

“Back in 1990, we got nearly all of our maps on paper with boundary lines drawn on with markers,” Finney said.

Nowadays, even individual counties have their own geographic information systems, some to map property lines, and others that do similar work to what Finney’s team does during redistricting periods.

“The software that’s being used is higher quality and the sophistication of boards of elections in the state has increased dramatically over the years as well,” Finney said.

The technology has grown, and the ability to do their work has changed, but Jolley said the importance of census counts shines through every time they sit down to do these redistricting/census projects.

“We know that many times certain areas may be underrepresented because everyone perhaps did not complete the census (survey),” Jolley said. “It’s important that we have as high a response rate as possible because this determines things like seats for the United States Congress.”

The Redistricting Commission convened for the first time last week, starting the process with appointment of members to the commission. Public hearings will be the next step in the process of finalizing redistricting maps.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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