Redistricting amendment gets green light to collect signatures after clearing Ohio Ballot Board

Credit: Gene J. Puskar

Credit: Gene J. Puskar

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Backers of a redistricting reform amendment are set to begin collecting voter signatures soon after a state panel determined Thursday that the proposal is a single issue.

The Ohio Ballot Board, led by Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, cast a unanimous, bipartisan vote at the Statehouse Thursday morning without debate. The development is a win for the amendment’s backers, since the Republican-controlled board could have split the proposal into multiple issues, which would have required the campaign to collect hundreds of thousands of valid voter signatures for each one.

Making it past the Ballot Board is the second legal step that citizens must clear when proposing amendments to the state constitution. The amendment’s backers cleared their first legal hurdle earlier this month, when Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost approved language summarizing the measure’s effects that will appear on the petitions the group must circulate to voters around the state.

Next, the campaign must collect roughly 413,000 signatures from 44 of 88 Ohio counties before a deadline in July to qualify for the November 2024 ballot. Voters then would decide whether to approve it.

Citizens Not Politicians issued a statement following Thursday’s Ballot Board meeting, saying the group plans to begin circulating petitions around the state “soon,” once Yost certifies the Ballot Board’s vote.

“For Ohioans of all political persuasions, this is a big day because the citizens are one step closer to taking the driver’s wheel and putting the politicians in the back seat,” former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican who is one of the leaders of the statewide nonpartisan coalition backing the measure, said in a statement. “This amendment will end gerrymandering in Ohio by putting citizens – not politicians – in charge of drawing legislative districts.”

The proposed constitutional amendment would create a 15-member Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission made up equally of Democrats, Republicans and voters who are not affiliated with any party. It would replace a seven-member panel of elected officials who oversee the process.

In addition to removing current politicians from the redistricting process, former politicians, political party officials and lobbyists would also be barred from sitting on the commission. The proposal would require fair and impartial districts by making it unconstitutional to draw voting districts that discriminate against or favor any political party or politician. It also would require the commission to operate under an open and independent process.

Many Democrats, meanwhile, have signaled support for the proposal, although the campaign describes itself as nonpartisan.

Republicans, who control the state’s redistricting process thanks to their victories in the 2022 election, are likely to oppose the amendment, arguing that the commission wouldn’t truly remove politics from the redistricting process, which must occur at least every decade to reflect population changes. They already began rallying around a message that Ohio’s redistricting process works as is after the commission’s two Democrats joined Republicans recently in approving bipartisan state legislative maps.

However, LaRose, when asked about the proposal following Thursday’s meeting, said he is undecided. LaRose, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in the primary election in March who also sits on the Redistricting Commission, is a longtime proponent of redistricting reform. Privately, he was sharply critical of how redistricting played out under the current system, records released as part of a lawsuit showed.

“I’m curious to learn more about it at this point. I think there are some interesting proposals therein,” LaRose said. “My question is one of accountability. How are these commission members held accountable? How are we sure they’re held to the same kind of ethical standards public officials are accountable and that kind of thing. But I just look forward to seeing this play out.”

Another top elected Republican, Gov. Mike DeWine, also has been noncommittal about the proposal while saying he generally supports the idea of removing elected officials from the redistricting process.

If approved, the amendment would require Ohio to draw new state legislative and congressional districts in 2025.

Ohio used its current redistricting system, approved by voters in 2015 and 2018, for the first time last year, leading to a dysfunctional process that saw the Ohio Supreme Court reject numerous sets of maps as illegally gerrymandered in favor of Republicans, and Republicans in turn eventually ignoring the court’s orders. O’Connor, the former Ohio Supreme Court justice who’s a leader in the redistricting amendment campaign, was a key swing vote in rejecting the maps.

Andrew Tobias covers state politics and government for and The Plain Dealer

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