Editorial: Redistricting just got more complicated

Ohio’s experiments in drawing fairer congressional and state legislative districts haven’t even gotten underway and already they’re in trouble.

That’s because the U.S. Census Bureau will be late in reporting the data needed to redraw the districts. Very late.

The bureau had planned to deliver the data by March 31, but announced Friday that it wouldn’t do so until Sept. 30. Other states are in the same boat.

It was, as Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron, said, “a disappointing setback.” She called on the legislative task force responsible for redistricting to begin its work, including seeking public input.

“The fact remains that regardless of when the data arrives, we need to be ready to deliver on the promise of fair districts,” Sykes said. “I again urge my co-chair to convene the Task Force and release the funds so we can begin the work of bringing fair districts back to Ohio.”

She’s right. The task will be complex, and putting off the groundwork would make it even more so.

Given the pandemic, the bureau’s struggle to get states accurate data on time was probably inevitable, but a six-month delay is unacceptable.

During redistricting in 2011, Ohio got census data March 9 but didn’t finalize a new congressional map until December, The Plain Dealer reported last week.

This year, new legislative districts are supposed to be approved no later than Sept. 15. New congressional districts are supposed to be completed no later than Nov. 30.

Ohio’s redistricting was already going to be more difficult than usual this year for two reasons.

First, the state is widely expected to lose a congressional seat. Second, voters have changed the process for redrawing districts in response to the gerrymandering that Republicans foisted on the state in 2011.

Buy-in from the minority party is now required for newly drawn districts to remain in place for a full decade. Districts must be compact, too, and the public must have input. Failure to reach agreement could produce districts that remain in place only four years instead of 10.

That’s a recipe for confusion.

Voters deserve clarity on who represents them, and candidates should have a chance to familiarize themselves with their districts before entering congressional or state legislative races.

For instance, U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, plans to run for reelection, but he doesn’t know what his district, which now includes portions of Lorain County, will look like.

Jordan has already drawn one Democratic challenger, Jeffrey Sites of Lima, but there’s no guarantee the two will even end up in the same congressional district. Jordan lives in Champaign County while Sites lives in Allen County.

As drawn now, Jordan’s district is all but guaranteed to elect a Republican (and likely will be again, given his national profile). Lorain County’s other two other U.S. representatives, Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, and Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, are likewise in safe districts.

Unfortunately, waiting for the Census Bureau to deliver the data is the only reasonable option.

The state could draw new districts based on the bureau’s 2019 population estimates, but the estimates are far less accurate than the 2020 count.

GOP gerrymandering has given the party control of 12 of Ohio’s 16 U.S. House seats, even though the state was politically purple in 2011. True, Ohio has trended redder in recent elections, but not so much that only 25 percent of voters are Democrats.

Regardless of when the Census Bureau gets the data to Ohio, voters have given elected officials responsible for redistricting their marching orders: fairer districts.

It’s a mandate they should follow.

— Elyria Chronicle, Feb. 17