A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by the state of Ohio that tried to get the U.S. Census Bureau to provide data used for drawing congressional and legislative districts ahead of its planned release.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Rose in Dayton, Ohio, rejected the state’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have forced the Census Bureau to release the redistricting data by March 31.
Ohio filed its lawsuit last month after the Census Bureau said the redistricting data wouldn’t be available until September, months after the redistricting deadlines for many states. Posing the first challenge to the bureau's revised deadline on redistricting data, the lawsuit said the delay will undermine Ohio’s process of redrawing districts. Alabama also has filed a lawsuit over the changed deadline.
The bureau has since said the data will be available in an older format in August.
In dismissing the lawsuit, the judge said that there was nothing that could be done to fix Ohio's redistricting quandary since it was impossible for the Census Bureau to meet the legally mandated March 31 deadline. Bureau officials said last month that they needed more time because of operational delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
In order to draw congressional districts, Ohio needs to know how many congressional seats it will get when the apportionment numbers are released and that data aren't being released until next month, Rose said.
“So even if the relief Ohio seeks (redistricting data by March 31) was granted, Ohio would be no closer to drawing congressional districts on April 1," the judge wrote.
The judge said Ohio could use other data to draw its districts. The state's claim that fights over what alternative data to use would undermine confidence in the redistricting process was “speculative,” Rose said.
“Accuracy would seem to be the foundation of confidence, and Ohio’s redistricting plan foresees the possibility of delays in providing numbers," the judge said. “It would seem that the remedy Ohio seeks is more likely to reduce public confidence."
Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said the state would appeal.
“We appreciate Judge Rose’s careful consideration of the matter, but if the State does not have standing to challenge the Census Bureau’s decision to arbitrarily ignore a statutory deadline, no one does," Yost said in a statement.
Ohio law requires a newly formed commission to finalize state legislative districts by Sept. 1 and to hold three public meetings before doing so. Ohio’s General Assembly is required to adopt a map for congressional districts by 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. The data 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.
The delay in releasing the redistricting data has sent states scrambling to come up with alternative plans. Many will not get the data until after their legal deadlines for drawing new districts, requiring them to either rewrite laws or ask the courts to allow them a free pass because of the delay. Candidates may not know yet whether they will live in the district they want to run in by the filing deadline. In some cases, if fights over new maps drag into the new year, primary elections may have to be delayed.