Military, overseas ballots on hold, but May 3 primary still on

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose ordered the state’s 88 county-level boards of election not to send out ballots to overseas and military voters, due to the Ohio Supreme Court’s third rejection this week of state House and Senate district maps.

LaRose also said in a letter to Gov. Mike DeWine and legislative leaders that it’s it’s no longer logistically possible to include district-specific legislative races on the ballots.

“I regret to inform you that as a result of last night’s decision by the Ohio Supreme Court, and barring the immediate action of a federal court, our 88 county boards of elections can no longer include contests for the state House and state Senate in the May 3, 2022, primary election,” his letter says.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators’ anger at the court’s Wednesday ruling revived talk of impeaching their fellow Republican, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

Election officials had planned to send overseas and military ballots on Friday, the first ones to go out in the partisan primary scheduled for May 3. But with state House and Senate districts still uncertain — and U.S. House districts, for that matter — those races cannot be placed on the ballot.

“As such, boards of elections are prohibited from altering or sending ballots and must pause any reprogramming of voter registration and tabulating systems until my office provides additional instruction,” LaRose wrote to county election officials.

He told them the May 3 primary is still on, and they should continue to prepare for that.

In a letter to Gov. Mike DeWine and legislative leaders, LaRose also said those preparations will go on “unless directed to do otherwise by the Ohio General Assembly or a court order.”

That leaves local election officials in limbo, said Brian Sleeth, Warren County Board of Elections director and president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

“We’re hoping for additional guidance from the secretary of state soon,” he said.

The legal deadline to issue overseas and military ballots is Saturday, but Sleeth hoped election boards would get federal permission to hold off longer.

“We heard that they do have an agreement with the Secretary of State, the Department of Defense, to delay that; but we haven’t seen anything in writing,” he said.

Friday afternoon, that confirmation arrived: LaRose sent a letter to state officials saying he’d just gotten federal authorities’ permission to delay sending overseas and military ballots until April 5. Voters would have an additional 10 days to return those ballots as well.

The OAEO maintains its earlier position that if any races are delayed, the whole primary should be moved back instead of voting on some races May 3 and other races later, Sleeth said.

The cost would be exorbitant to buy supplies twice, organize another round of balloting and find poll workers for what is always a low-turnout election anyway, he said.

Legislators understood “loud and clear” from the OAEO’s statement in February that election officials didn’t want to split the primary, Sleeth said.

“But that was then. Things have changed,” he said. This third rejection of district maps so close to the primary date might revive that proposal, Sleeth said.

The Clark County Board of Elections is likewise in a “holding pattern,” according to Deputy Director Amber Lopez.

“We have not heard anything about a decision on delaying the election,” she said via email. “We have not had much regarding questions from voters, but what they need to know is that we are ready and able to take action as soon as we receive further instructions.”

Legal blame

LaRose’s letter blames the halt on a months-long delay in getting 2020 census data needed for redistricting and the state Supreme Court’s multi-month consideration of legal challenges to the district maps.

For the census holdup he accuses President Joe Biden.

“I believe this delay was intentional,” LaRose wrote.

The census deadline for redistricting data was extended for months under the Trump administration due largely to COVID-19.

For part of the legal holdup LaRose sought to lay the blame on “out of state special interests ultimately seeking court-ordered gerrymandering for partisan advantage,” despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that it was Republican map-drawers themselves who gerrymandered three sets of maps for their own advantage.

Ohio voters created a new redistricting process through constitutional amendment, and this round of redistricting ― required to conform with 2020 census results — is the first use of the new system. The seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission first passed new maps in September, approving them on a 5-2, party-line vote; but progressive and voting-rights groups immediately sued, and the state Supreme Court has now thrown out three sets of maps as unfairly favoring Republicans.

In a ruling issued late Wednesday, the court ordered the Ohio Redistricting Commission to draw a fourth set of state legislative maps by March 28. In the majority opinion, justices said the “remarkably one-sided” distribution of districts with narrow Democratic margins vs. districts with safer Republican margins was evidence of intentional bias favoring Republicans.

The court recommended retaining an independent map-drawer to publicly draft a new plan with bipartisan input.

LaRose noted that a federal lawsuit is still pending as well. A Republican-backed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio asks the federal court to order use of the second Republican-drawn map proposal, which on Feb. 7 the Ohio Supreme Court ruled unconstitutionally favors Republicans.

On Wednesday, Chief Judge Algernon Marbley of the federal district court imposed a stay in the federal case because the current map-drawing process is ongoing. Plaintiffs moved Thursday to vacate the stay and refer the issue to a three-judge panel. Then Friday afternoon the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Ohio asked Marbley to keep the stay in place, noting the new March 28 map deadline.

Finally, Ohio Supreme Court justices are considering a similar challenge to Ohio’s U.S. House district map, which they have also thrown out twice as gerrymandered to favor Republicans.

Ohio must lose one of its 16 U.S. House seats in line with 2020 census results. The redistricting commission on March 2 approved a third U.S. House map on a 5-2 party-line vote with no Democratic support.

Republican retaliation

Mutterings from multiple Republican members of the General Assembly about impeaching Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, which began following the court’s previous rejection of district maps, grew louder with the latest court ruling.

“It’s time to impeach Maureen O’Connor now,” state Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wayne County, tweeted Thursday.

It’s unclear what charge would be used to justify the chief justice’s removal.

O’Connor, a longtime Republican official, has nevertheless sided with the court’s three Democrats in a series of 4-3 rulings overturning state and congressional district maps.

Her term as chief justice ends Dec. 31, and she is not running for reelection. Ohio law says Supreme Court justices must be under age 70 at the time of election, and O’Connor turns 71 this year.

John Fortney, spokesman for the Senate Majority Caucus, would not comment specifically on whether Senate Republican leaders would endorse an impeachment effort. Fortney said via email he would not respond to “hypothetical scenarios and what ifs.”

Instead, the focus is on the next redistricting commission meeting, scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, he said.

At a press conference Friday on broadband expansion projects, Gov. DeWine came out against the idea of impeaching O’Connor.

“I don’t think we want to go down that pathway because we disagree with a decision by a court, because we disagree with a decision by an individual judge or justice. Not a good idea,” he said.

Instead, DeWine proposed that Republican legislators’ two map-drawing experts should sit down with the Democratic map-drawer, and the redistricting commission should tell them to come up with a new map that meets the court’s instructions.

All seven commission members, Republicans and Democrats, should have “total access” to those discussions, he said.

“You could add to that additional public meetings,” DeWine said.

The court’s suggestion of bringing in an outside map expert would be “difficult,” but perhaps not impossible, given the 10-day window to draw new maps, he said.

The Equal Districts Coalition, a group of Ohio organizations which has opposed the Republican-drawn maps, on Friday endorsed the idea of appointing a nonpartisan outside mapmaker.

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