Ohio Sues Census Bureau Over Data Delay

Citing an inability to meet constitutionally-mandated deadlines for the drawing of congressional districts, the state of Ohio sued the federal government nearly two weeks after the Census Bureau announced a delay in the release of 2020 census data.

A briefcase of a census taker is seen as she knocks on the door of a residence on Aug. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

DAYTON, Ohio (CN) — The state of Ohio sued the U.S. Census Bureau in federal court on Thursday, claiming a recently announced delay in the delivery of census data will render it unable to complete its redistricting process by the required deadlines.

Ohio is the first state to challenge the delay — the second delay in the span of just over two weeks — and seeks an order vacating the decision to delay the release, as well as a writ of mandamus that would require the federal government to deliver the redistricting data by March 31.

In a statement released after the lawsuit was filed in federal court, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost accused the federal government of “create[ing] a double standard,” and said it “has chosen to drag its feet by delaying the release of census data instead of following the law.”

Federal authorities cited the Covid-19 pandemic as the most influential factor in their decision to delay distribution of the data for a second time, but Yost made it clear he doesn’t buy it.

“The people of Ohio,” his statement said, “have found ways to meet their responsibilities throughout the Covid-19 pandemic — adapting how we run businesses, caring for loved ones, home schooling children — why should the government create a double standard?”

“Laws cannot be arbitrarily changed by administrative fiat,” Yost added. “Even if it’s inconvenient, the Census Bureau must do its job.”

State law requires Ohio to finalize its legislative districts by Sept. 1, but that can only be done after three public meetings; in any case, the projected Sept. 30 release won’t work for the Buckeye State.

Ohio cited the Census Bureau’s own website in Thursday’s suit, and pointed out the agency “has a ‘legal requirement’ to send population data to the states ‘within a year following Census Day.’” 

It said the Ohio Redistricting Commission, a seven-member, bipartisan committee tasked with drawing up the districts for the 2022 election cycle, will be unable to do its job without the data.

“The state will be irreparably harmed by the February 12 decision [to delay],” the complaint says, “because the delayed release of the redistricting data forces the Commission and the General Assembly to either use alternative data or miss their deadlines for acting.”

Ohio claims the Bureau’s decision to send all of the data at once six months from now — rather than a “flow” of data that had previously been announced — will erode public confidence and increase partisan tensions across the state.

“The February 12 decision,” the complaint says, “insofar as it forces the state to use alternative data sources, will also cause irreparable harm by instigating high-stakes debates regarding which data to use and by fanning partisan flames when one data source is eventually chosen, no matter how precise and reliable.”

Ohio filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in tandem with the lawsuit, and emphasized that its citizens’ efforts to eliminate gerrymandering via two constitutional amendments — passed in 2015 and 2018 — would be nullified by a September data release.

“The February 12 decision,” the motion said, “blocks the state from conducting redistricting in the constitutionally preferred manner, and thus blocks it from best ‘effectuating’ state law.

“That is irreparable harm as a matter of law, without regard to the adequacy, as a factual matter, of the option to proceed without census data.”

“The secretary’s plan is illegal,” the motion said bluntly, “and neither the Census Bureau nor the secretary could plausibly contend otherwise. Indeed, the Bureau has not even gestured at a legal justification, offering instead a practical one: ‘Covid-19 delayed census operations significantly.’

“Surely it is true that the pandemic has made the statutory deadlines harder to me. That, however, is largely irrelevant … because the statute does not say that the mandatory deadlines can be ignored in the event of a pandemic or other unforeseen difficulties.”

Named as defendants alongside the bureau are its acting director, Ron Jarmin, as well as the U.S. Department of Commerce and its acting secretary, Wynn Coggins.

The Census Bureau said in a statement it does not comment on pending litigation.

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