U.S. Census delay puts fair redistricting in jeopardy

Updated: May. 28, 2021 at 6:40 PM EDT
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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - For years, voting rights activists have been fighting to stop gerrymandering in the state of Ohio. That’s the practice of establishing a boundary that favors one political party over another.

Now, for the first time ever, there are rules on the books to keep the process fair this year. But there are concerns that Census Bureau delays in Washington might get in the way.

There’s a stretch of Secor Rd. between I-475 and University Parks Trail where one side of the street falls into Ohio Congressional District 5. But cross the street, and you’ll find yourself in the 9th district.

“All you have to think about is the crazy “Snake on the Lake” district, that Congressional District 9 that runs from Toledo to Cleveland, and you get a sense of the kind of manipulation and shenanigans that went on during 2011,” says Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a Columbus-based non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group dedicated to increasing access to, and participation in democracy in Ohio.

In 2018, Common Cause Ohio rallied support for Issue 1, which won by nearly 75% of the vote. It’s supposed to make it harder to gerrymander congressional district maps.

“The Census Bureau doesn’t get involved in all of that, but their delay is causing Ohio to have to compress their timeline in generating these districts,” says Wendy Manning, professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University.

Redistricting relies on census data. Usually the Census Bureau provides the data to states by the end of March. Then an independent commission should have until September 1 to draw up a fair district map.

“And if you don’t do it by this date, the court will make a temporary plan for you, or a temporary map, as they call it,” says Manning.

But due to the virus, the Bureau told states the data wouldn’t be ready until September 30. But Ohio sued to get the info sooner.

The state and the bureau just reached an agreement that the data would be released on August 16, which leaves the commission less than three weeks to decide the future of Ohio’s elections for the next ten years.

“What we do know is that the manipulation of the district lines, ends up being the manipulation of elections,” says Turcer.

Under the new redistricting rules, splits the one down Secor likely won’t be allowed. Districts shaped like District 9 is currently definitely will not be legal. In fact, 65 of Ohio’s 88 counties are required to stay completely in-tact. Five of the most highly populated counties will be split twice. The remaining 18 counties will be split once.

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