The New Census Schedule: What’s the Impact for Ohio’s Redistricting Process?

On February 12, the US Census Bureau announced that it could be as late as September 30 before it will be able to provide states with the data necessary to draw new state legislative and congressional district lines. In a normal year, we would expect the data to begin to arrive in late February or early March. 

The problem is not just that the data will be months late, it’s that it will arrive AFTER the first deadlines for approving newly drawn maps  — deadlines that have been set in the Ohio Constitution and therefore are extremely difficult to change. The final deadline for districts for the Ohio House of Representatives and the Ohio Senate is Sept. 15. There are a series of deadlines for congressional maps with the first on Sept. 30 and the final on Nov. 30. 

The delay from the Census Bureau is not that surprising, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s attempt to politicize the census. We need census data that is accurate, and that may just take more time, which is ok. 

While the timeline for legislative mapmaking is unclear, what is clear is that we, Ohio voters, demanded fair districts in 2015 and 2018, and that we need to hold the mapmakers accountable as they draw our new maps. Delays in census data cannot be used as an excuse for backroom partisan shenanigans or removing the ability for people to have input. Mapmaking needs to be as transparent as possible and public input should not be neglected because of delayed census data. 

The question on everyone’s mind: What now? Honestly, we don’t yet know. We are working with experts and partners to determine our recommendations for a path forward.  Clearly, with so much yet unknown and unknowable, guesses are pure speculation. But we can look at the range of possibilities.


Option 1: Adjust the Timeline for Mapmaking 

The best option is ensuring that there is adequate time for mapmaking and for public deliberation. 

The mapmakers and other stakeholders can go to court and identify the need for more time and ask the court to move the constitutional deadlines. After all, the March 2020 Primary was suspended due to COVID-19 in a move approved by the Ohio Supreme Court, and courts across the country have made adjustments to election administration deadlines — many related to absentee voting. California successfully petitioned the state Supreme Court to seek relief from unrealistic redistricting deadlines. 

Moving the deadlines forward would mean adequate time, not only for official map-makers to do their work, but also for the public to weigh in on the maps. Greater transparency and public hearings are mandated in the Ohio Constitution–and essential for Fair Maps. 

If the deadlines are moved forward, however, another problem will arise: The deadlines for mapmaking were established in the Ohio Constitution in order to have district lines set well in advance of the next primary election. However, since the time and date of elections are established by the state legislature, they could choose to move 2022 primary to a later date.  By moving the primary to later in the year, the state legislature could create adequate time for thoughtful mapmaking. 

Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman floated some ideas for addressing the upcoming primary in an interview with, “In theory, we could move the filing deadline [for candidates] up or we could move the primary. Some states have their primaries in June even.”


Option 2: Use different data 

Another approach would simply be to use different data. One option would be for mapmakers to use the 2019 American Community Survey data. This information was collected by the Census Bureau and is a reputable data set, but it is not complete The drawback here is simply that, to achieve the best and most accurate representation,  it is always best to use the most robust and current data — which would be the census data, if and when it becomes available. We at Common Cause would strongly oppose any attempt to draw maps with data other than that from the 2020 census.  


Option 3: Using existing districts for another cycle will not work for Ohio. Some states, given the delayed census results and early map-making deadlines, will simply continue to use the current districts through the 2022 elections and draw new maps in 2023. However, with Ohio likely to lose congressional seat (from 16 to 15 congressional districts), leaving our US Congressional districts unchanged until the next election cycle is not an option. 

Regardless of which option, or combination of options are implemented, Ohioans are entitled to the robust public input process and transparency protections. Together, we fought for redistricting reform and Ohioans overwhelmingly approved new rules in 2015 (state legislative districts) and 2018 (congressional districts). We deserve transparent mapmaking. Districts should never again be drawn in “the bunker.” We are putting mapmakers on notice that census data delays are not an excuse to cut any corners, and that Common Cause Ohio and our Fair Districts allies will be there to watch every step of the way.