After nearly three hours of acrimonious debate, one failed proposal and an hour-long break, members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission declared themselves at an impasse Thursday and adjourned without approving new state House and Senate district maps.
They faced a midnight deadline from the Ohio Supreme Court, which has already twice rejected as unconstitutional maps that previously passed with only Republican support.
The commission began Thursday by discussing Democratic proposed maps that would likely have created a partisan breakdown of 54 Republicans and 45 Democrats in the Ohio House, and 18 Republican and 15 Democratic seats in the Ohio Senate, House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Columbus, said.
But the proposal met with a stream of protest from Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, who said it would put two Republican incumbents together in each of five House districts and draw one more Republican into a Democratic-leaning district.
“There is no such treatment for any of the Democratic House members. That appears to favor the Democratic Party,” he said.
Huffman took the line that if the new maps disfavor individual Republicans, they disfavor Republicans in general and therefore violate the constitutional provision requiring that a plan not favor or disfavor a specific party.
Russo said Democratic mapmakers had not considered the location of incumbents, and that the court ruling says a plan in its entirety can’t favor a particular party — not that individual districts can’t.
“The fact that certain members of the General Assembly are unable to run is not a violation of the constitution,” Russo said.
Under the current maps, in place since 2011, Republicans hold nearly twice as many seats in the General Assembly as Democrats, despite winning statewide elections by roughly 54%-46% margins.
Huffman also accused Democrats of “racial gerrymandering,” of doing the same “cracking and packing” of minority communities — though in reverse — that Democrats and much public testimony accused Republicans of doing in previous maps.
The Democratic proposal failed by a 5-2 party-line vote. Commissioners then recessed for 30 minutes, which turned into more than an hour.
When they returned, Republicans didn’t offer any new map proposal of their own, instead blaming Democrats and the Ohio Supreme Court.
Auditor Keith Faber argued it’s impossible to match the number of Democratic- and Republican-leaning seats to voters’ statewide preferences without violating other constitutional provisions.
Commission co-chair House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, criticized the court for not providing more guidance, and ordering mapmakers to start from scratch on short timelines.
“It’s constitutionally anticipated that it takes 60 days, from scratch, to draw a new map,” he said.
Gov. Mike DeWine said the commission needs to send another map to the court for its review.
“We have an obligation to follow the Ohio constitution,” he said. “We have an obligation to follow the court order, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not. And three, we have an obligation to produce a map.”
But, DeWine said, he hasn’t seen any proposal that “follows the constitution,” including Thursday’s Democratic one.
“If we leave here without getting a map, we are giving the court absolutely nothing to react to,” he said.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose was the first to declare an impasse. Speaking, he said, as the state’s chief elections officer, county boards of elections are less than a month away from having to mail out military ballots. More deadlines will swiftly follow.
That leaves officials dangerously close to violating federal law, LaRose said. They have a stark choice between quickly producing a map the court accepts and moving the spring partisan primary.
Russo asserted that constitutional maps are possible, and said Democrats were willing to alter theirs with Republican feedback — but received none, although the proposal was publicly available days in advance.
Commission co-chair state Sen. Vernon Sykes, R-Akron, rejected Republican assertions of “racial gerrymandering” in the Democratic proposal.
“We did not use race as a predominant factor in drawing the lines,” he said.
Sykes said he’s grateful for the court holding lawmakers to the constitutional standard, because despite a Republican lock on branches of state government — and a 5-2 majority on the redistricting commission — the majority failed to do its duty.
Following a comment by Cupp that the commission needs to meet next week to take up congressional redistricting, the meeting adjourned.
How we got here
The Ohio Supreme Court has twice struck down new maps of state House and Senate districts, most recently on Feb. 7; and on Jan. 14 also threw out the new map of Ohio’s 15 U.S. House districts. All those maps had passed with only Republican support, and the court ruled they unfairly favored Republicans.
Justices gave legislators until Feb. 17 to approve a third version of state House and Senate maps. Legislators are tossing the job of drawing a new U.S. House map back to the Ohio Redistricting Commission, giving that body until March 15.
But the filing deadline for candidates for state House and Senate seats was Feb. 2, and the deadline for U.S. House seats is March 4.
The primary election for all races is May 3. The Ohio Supreme Court has noted that the General Assembly can move primary dates if necessary.
After Thursday’s meeting both Cupp and Sykes said they’re not sure what the court will do in response to the commission’s failure, though Sykes said it’s possible commission members will be held in contempt.
Cupp said he doesn’t think a majority of the House would favor moving the primary date, then stopped taking questions.
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