New Ohio state House, Senate districts won’t last long: What comes next?

Members of Fair Districts Ohio and other progressive and voting-rights groups chant angrily at members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission following the commission's May 5, 2022, readoption of state House and Senate district maps already rejected as unconstitutional. Members of the media cluster around commission members on the dais.

Credit: Jim Gaines

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Members of Fair Districts Ohio and other progressive and voting-rights groups chant angrily at members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission following the commission's May 5, 2022, readoption of state House and Senate district maps already rejected as unconstitutional. Members of the media cluster around commission members on the dais.

Credit: Jim Gaines

Although legislative district maps are now in place for a state House and Senate primary election Aug. 2, those district lines are likely to change again before the next primary season.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission has passed five sets of House and Senate maps since September — all Republican-drawn plans supported only by Republican commission members — only to see the Ohio Supreme Court strike them down each time as unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans.

But on May 27, a panel of federal judges ordered Ohio to use the third set of maps passed by the commission, despite their rejection by the state court, in an Aug. 2 primary for state House, Senate and seats on the central committees of both major political parties.

The state held its usual springtime primary May 3 for statewide offices, but not for those seats because legislative districts were still unsettled.

Key in the federal panel’s decision was the assertion by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose — who is also a redistricting commission member — that only the third set of maps was feasible to use in August.

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Following the federal order, LaRose sent a directive to the state’s 88 county boards of election on how to prepare for the August 2 primary. It specifies the maps ordered for use are “for this year’s elections only” (emphasis in the original).

“Based on information collected from the boards, it is our understanding that 86 of the 88 counties have the Third District Map programmed into their systems,” LaRose wrote.

If not, they are required to do so by Tuesday, June 7. Maps of the new districts can be seen at www.VoteOhio.gov/Districts.

Those maps would ostensibly create 54 Republican and 45 Democratic House seats, with 18 Republican and 15 Democratic Senate seats. But of those, 19 House and seven Senate seats would lean Democratic by less than 4%, while no Republican districts would be that close.

Commissioners passed the third set of maps Feb. 24. The Supreme Court threw it out March 16 and ordered the commission to try again.

Republican commissioners passed a cosmetically altered version of the same maps March 28, which the court threw out April 14, giving commissioners until May 6 to submit a fifth version.

Instead, a majority of Republican commissioners, anticipating federal judges would order use of the third maps anyway, resubmitted the third maps — which the supreme court threw out again May 25, ordering a sixth set by June 3.

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The commission didn’t even meet by that deadline.

Redistricting commission co-chair state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, sent a letter June 2 to his fellow co-chair, state Rep. Jeff LaRe, R-Violet Twp., deploring the fact that meeting the court’s June 3 deadline was “unachievable.”

“Leader Russo and I have been prepared to meet at any time since the latest Ohio Supreme Court ruling invalidated the latest set of unconstitutional maps,” Sykes said, referring to the commission’s other Democratic member, House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington.

“However, my inquiries — letters and calls — to schedule meetings and draw maps went unanswered. The Redistricting Commission has violated an order from the Supreme Court of Ohio. More alarming is that the Commission continues to violate its constitutional imperative to produce legislative maps for Ohio.”

LaRe responded the next day, saying he would not try to adopt new maps “by a specified time and on a specified date” but does intend for the commission to reconvene and adopt a “constitutionally compliant” plan “in advance of the 2024 elections.”

Adopting new maps now, even if they’re not to be used August 2, would “do nothing but continue to sow confusion among Ohioans,” LaRe wrote.

He said the commission can’t draw new maps until results of the November 8 general election are known.

On Tuesday, plaintiffs in one of two related cases before the Ohio Supreme Court filed a motion asking justices to hold redistricting commissioners accountable for not even attempting to draw new maps. For the third time in several months, plaintiffs want the court to order commission members to explain why they didn’t comply with the order, or face contempt charges. To date justices have been reluctant to hold a contempt hearing for commissioners, who include not only legislative leaders and LaRose but Gov. Mike DeWine and Auditor Keith Faber.

Plaintiffs’ motion accuses commissioners of deliberately stalling to get the federal judicial panel to impose Republicans’ preferred maps.

“This litigation has seen the Commission behave more and more lawlessly,” the motion says. “Outright ignoring court orders is the stuff of authoritarianism – and doing so subverts the legitimacy of this Court and its role in the constitutional structure.”

If the redistricting commission eventually passes maps with bipartisan support, those new districts will remain in force for the next decade. Maps that pass with only one party’s support but are ruled constitutional would be in place for four years.

The supreme court has held out for the standard of proportionality, meaning that legislative district maps should resemble the state’s actual partisan lean of 54% Republican and 46% Democratic. Currently Republicans hold a supermajority in both the state House and Senate, and all Republican-approved map proposals would likely preserve outsized Republican majorities.

If approval of new maps is delayed until next year, Republicans hope they will come before a more pliant Ohio Supreme Court. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican who joined the court’s three Democrats in ruling the maps unconstitutional, is unable to seek another term.

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