New Ohio Lawsuit Becomes Latest Fight Over When Census Can Release 2020 Data

UNITED STATES - MARCH 13: Residents of the Unired States began receiving their 2020 U.S. Census letters in the mail this week. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
February 25, 2021 4:19 p.m.

President Trump may be gone but the battles over the census haven’t ended.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) filed a federal lawsuit Thursday demanding that the Census Bureau stick to its statutory deadline of delivering redistricting data by the end of March. The Bureau recently announced that data won’t be ready until Sept. 30, because of snafus in the final stages of processing it caused by the pandemic and other issues.

In seeking a court order that the Bureau meet the March 31 deadline, Yost pointed to the Ohio redistricting process that was established in a constitutional amendment approved by the state’s voters in 2018. The amendment set out deadlines by which a redistricting commission draft state legislative and congressional maps.

“This delay means that the decennial census data will not be available to the State of Ohio as it works to complete its redistricting process by constitutionally prescribed deadlines,” the lawsuit said.

The state constitution also requires that Ohio prioritize the use of census data for redistricting, meaning that if the commission uses another data source because of the bureau’s delays, it will be prevented “from conducting redistricting in the constitutionally preferred manner,” according to the lawsuit.

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Yost also filed a request for a preliminary order reinstating the March 31 deadline.

Since the pandemic disrupted the decennial survey’s launch, the Census Bureau has said it would need more time to deliver the data. With then-President Trump’s support, the bureau asked Congress last April to move back by four months the Dec. 31 apportionment data and March 31 redistricting data deadlines.

However, that summer, the Trump administration backed away from the extension request. The reversal came around the same time that Trump announced a policy to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment, and was presumably motivated by a desire to guarantee that apportionment data be released with enough time for Trump to implement the policy, even if he lost his re-election. Though the House approved legislation extending the deadlines, it was never taken up by the then-GOP controlled Senate.

(The gambit didn’t work, however: routine hiccups identified in the apportionment data prevented the bureau from releasing it before the inauguration.)

There are plans to reintroduce Senate legislation formally extending the data deadlines  and that measure has bipartisan support. It’s unclear what the timeline is for introducing the bill and putting it on the floor, or whether it has enough Republican support to overcome a filibuster.

However, passing that bill would not entirely moot out Ohio’s case. Yost is also alleging that the Census Bureau has violated federal administrative law in how it’s gone about postponing the release date.

In response to TPM’s inquiry about the lawsuit, the bureau said that it does “not comment on pending litigation.”

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