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Ohio, Census Bureau Reach Agreement On Redistricting Data

U.S. Census Bureau

The state of Ohio and the U.S. Census Bureau asked a judge on Tuesday to place on hold their court fight over when data used for redrawing congressional and legislative districts will be released.

As part of a settlement agreement, the Census Bureau promised to release the redistricting data no later than Aug. 16 — a date it had previously picked for releasing the numbers in an older format. The bureau also agreed to provide Ohio with twice-monthly updates on its progress toward meeting that deadline.

Ohio will drop its lawsuit against the statistical agency once the redistricting data is released on that date, according to the agreement.

Ohio sued the Commerce Secretary earlier this year after the Census Bureau said it would be unable to meet a legal deadline to release the redistricting data to the states by March 31 because of delays caused by the pandemic. The bureau said in February that the data would be available in an older format in mid-August and in a more user-friendly format by the end of September. A federal judge dismissed Ohio’s case and the state appealed, saying the delay threatened its ability to meet redistricting deadlines approved by voters and set in its state constitution.

Last week, an appellate panel said Ohio had standing to sue the Census Bureau and sent the case back to the lower court to come up with a solution.

“This administration tried to drag its feet and bog this down in court, but Ohio always had the law on its side and now the federal government has finally agreed,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in a statement. “It’s time to cough up the data.”

Ohio’s constitution requires, for the first time, an independent commission to finish redrawing legislative districts by Sept. 1. It sets a Sept. 30 deadline for the state’s General Assembly to complete a new map of congressional districts.

A similar lawsuit was filed by the state of Alabama, with the added twist that the Cotton State’s case also challenges the Census Bureau’s use of a statistical method to protect people’s privacy. Alabama and other critics claim it will result in inaccurate numbers. A three-judge panel could issue a decision any day.

The method called differential privacy adds mathematical “noise,” or intentional errors, to the data to obscure any given individual’s identity while still providing statistically valid information.

After the redistricting data is released in August and September, the Census Bureau also plans to release other data sets derived from the 2020 census, including tables on housing, family relationships in households and the age and sex of household members in areas as small as neighborhood blocks.

A scientific advisory committee to the Census Bureau on Tuesday recommended that the statistical agency delay releasing these other data sets not used for redistricting in order to spend more time testing and assessing the risks of using the privacy technique.

The Census Bureau is making final decisions next month on how differential privacy will be implemented.

“Taking the time to bake the cake is important,” Allison Plyer, chair of the Census Scientific Advisory Committee said during a virtual meeting.

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