Coalition pushes for more public input, transparency for new legislative maps

The Ohio Statehouse. FILE
Caption
The Ohio Statehouse. FILE

Fair Districts Ohio on Friday urged the commission that is working on new state House and Senate district maps to hold more public hearings and set a clear schedule for approving bipartisan maps before a hard deadline of Sept. 15.

The advocacy group used discussion of maps proposed by the Senate Democratic Caucus as a starting point, and urged the Ohio Redistricting Commission to do the same; but Fair Districts Ohio leaders specified they were not endorsing the Democratic proposal.

“Our goal is maps that truly serve the people,” said Jen Miller, Ohio executive director of the League of Women Voters. That group and Common Cause Ohio are the primary drivers behind Fair Districts Ohio.

The seven-member redistricting commission already missed its initial deadline of Sept. 1, triggering an extension to Sept. 15.

The redistricting commission held 10 public hearings around the state, ending Aug. 27. But since then there has been no transparency on progress — or word from the General Assembly on its requirement to produce a new congressional district map by Sept. 30, Miller said.

As the commission missed its Sept. 1 initial deadline, the Ohio Senate Democratic Caucus released a joint statement from commission co-chair state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, and House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron. They are the only two Democratic members on the commission.

“Ohio’s constitution requires the commission to approve a map by Sept. 1,” they said. “When Democrats called on the commission over a week ago to release a map in order to meet this important deadline, we were met with inaction from the majority party members. There could have been an attempt to meet this deadline despite the delays in census data, but Republicans chose not to.”

The commission adjourned Aug. 31 without scheduling another meeting. The Democratic Caucus statement called for approval of a bipartisan map before Sept. 15, noting that commissioners have agreed to hold at least three public hearings on the final maps. The state constitution only requires one hearing.

Republican leaders have blamed the delay on a four-month wait for census data, but said they expect to finalize a map before the Sept. 15 deadline. Republican caucuses are working on their own map proposals.

Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, a commission member, said the late release of census data meant the group couldn’t start its technical discussions until Aug. 20.

“I think we’ve made remarkable progress,” he said.

Huffman said he plans to meet with Sen. Sykes on Sept. 7 to discuss details of the process and several map proposals.

The commission will hold five more public hearings between Sept. 8 and Sept. 15, Huffman said.

Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, acknowledged that census data did arrive late, but said the main concern is a lack of clarity on how the commission intends to meet the Sept. 15 deadline. Public hearings should receive more than 24 hours notice, and the commission should announce what technical tools it’s using to assess the proposed maps, she said.

“What we need is for them to come up with a plan for how this will work, and to share it with the public,” Turcer said.

Fair Districts Ohio is sponsoring a public contest with cash prizes up to $750 for proposed new General Assembly and Congressional district maps. General Assembly maps are due Sept. 6 and Congressional maps by Sept. 15. The group will submit its chosen winner to the redistricting commission, Cusack said.

At Friday’s news conference, Chris Cusack described Senate Democrats’ map proposals as a “very strong starting point” for discussion. Cusack, professor emeritus of geography at Keene State College in New Hampshire, is redistricting technical manager for Fair Districts Ohio.

He used well-regarded redistricting software to analyze the proposals, and said the Democratic maps appeared to meet all legal requirements. The proposed districts are close to equal in population, meet federal Voting Rights Act standards, and don’t unduly split counties or cities, he said.

“This is relatively fair, and at first blush there’s nothing that jumps out as being problematic,” Cusack said.

Their strongest point is proportionality, he said. The Senate map would probably produce 18 Republican seats and 11 Democratic ones, with four up for grabs; while the House map would likely give Republicans 51 seats, Democrats 26, and make 22 competitive, Cusack said.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2015 to create the bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission. Reflecting state government’s current makeup, the commission has five Republican and two Democratic members.

The amendment’s purpose was to reduce gerrymandering in Ohio’s 99 state House and 33 state Senate districts. Republicans receive about 54% of the statewide vote, but hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate.

If at least two commissioners from each major political party vote to approve a new district map, it’s valid for 10 years. If a map passes on partisan lines, it’s only good for four years.

“And we are worried about the congressional process, too,” Miller said. She called on legislators to begin that work now and publicize their process.

Ohio will lose one of its 16 congressional seats due to sluggish population growth. If the General Assembly cannot agree on a new congressional map by Sept. 30, that too will go before a separate redistricting commission.