Progress made toward bipartisan plan for new state House, Senate districts

Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, (on left) looks over legislative district proposals for the Columbus and Cincinnati areas Jan. 20, 2022, as state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, smiles. Cupp and Sykes co-chair the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

Credit: Jim Gaines

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Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, (on left) looks over legislative district proposals for the Columbus and Cincinnati areas Jan. 20, 2022, as state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, smiles. Cupp and Sykes co-chair the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

Credit: Jim Gaines

The Ohio Redistricting Commission signaled progress toward new state House and Senate maps Thursday, but recessed for the night without a decision.

The group will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. Friday, working under a Saturday deadline imposed by the Ohio Supreme Court.

Democratic and Republican staff are working extra hours behind the scenes on map negotiations, and commission members indicated there is a greater sense of bipartisanship this time than last September when the Republican-dominated commission approved maps in a party-line vote.

“I believe this is the first time in the history of the state that Republican and Democratic staff have been working together on maps,” said state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, commission co-chair. His fellow co-chair House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, affirmed greater collaboration.

After the commission voted 5-2 for the previous maps, several progressive and voting-rights groups sued. The Ohio Supreme Court overturned those maps Jan. 12 and gave the commission 10 days to approve new ones.

Central to the court’s ruling was the need for proportionality: for the likely partisan makeup of the map to resemble the 54% Republican-46% Democratic way Ohioans have voted in recent statewide elections. The court ruled 4-3 that the original maps were gerrymandered to increase the supermajority Republicans already hold in both houses of the legislature.

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The commission met briefly Tuesday and was scheduled to do so again at 2 p.m. Thursday, but convened half an hour late. When Sykes gaveled the meeting to order he immediately called for a recess until 4 p.m. That turned into 4:30 p.m., but they returned to discuss competing proposals for two of the state’s most populous counties and a rural county attached to each.

“We have decided to take a regional approach to address this issue,” Sykes said. Franklin and Hamilton counties are the first to be considered, but the body will work toward agreement on one region after another.

Staff work is continuing even as commissioners debate the first few draft maps, Cupp said. He described the Republican proposals for the targeted counties.

“These were drawn with the idea of trying to have compact districts, districts that have some competitive nature to them where possible, and ones that take a step toward the proportionality requirement of the constitution as explained by the Ohio Supreme Court,” Cupp said.

The proposed maps for Hamilton and Warren counties would have five Democratic-leaning Ohio House seats and four Republican-leaning ones, with one Democratic-leaning Ohio Senate seat and two leaning toward Republicans, he said.

Democratic consultant Chris Glassburn gave the Democratic proposal. Much of it resembled the Republican proposal, with exceptions such as the western end of Hamilton County, he said. The Democratic map would join that area to Warren County in one Republican-leaning Senate district, Glassburn said.

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In an exchange with state Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, he confirmed the proposals thus far would likely give Democrats two additional state House and one state Senate seat over the previously approved maps.

Maps that fully meet the partisan proportionality standard would work out to a likely 45 Democratic House seats and 15 Democratic Senate seats, Glassburn said. Currently Democrats hold 34 of the House’s 99 seats and eight of the 33 Senate seats.

If the commission, which consists of five Republicans and two Democrats, approves maps without minority-party support as it did in September, the process must be redone in four years, even if there are no further court challenges. Maps accepted by both parties will last until the next decennial census.

Once the commission approves new maps, three days are allotted to file any new objections. The Ohio Supreme Court retains jurisdiction over the new maps. If any more objections are made, only a week would remain to resolve them before the Feb. 2 filing deadline for state legislative seats.

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