Redistricting commission to miss deadline, state lawmakers to try again

The Ohio Redistricting Commission held its only meeting to review new congressional district maps on Thursday, with members acknowledging they would not consider any maps for approval, throwing the process back to the General Assembly.

More than 50 people showed up to the public hearing at the Ohio Statehouse, with close to half wearing Fair Districts Ohio shirts. Members of that group, the Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission and a few others took turns — usually running over their 10-minute limit — presenting the maps they’d created and urging commissioners to act.

They presented maps showing various combinations of safe Republican and Democratic districts and a few competitive ones. The commission received about 60 map submissions, and on Thursday agreed to only hear testimony from people who submitted complete district plans.

Commissioners questioned how much of a difference in population between districts the courts would find acceptable.

Commission co-chair House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, showed particular concern in his questions for protecting incumbents from having to run against each other.

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

Gary Gale of Stark County spoke first. His map would create six Republican, five Democratic and four competitive districts, while splitting only 10 counties — all of them among the state’s most populous. Gale asked commission members to protect Ohio’s rural counties from being divided, and to create districts that reflect recognizable regions of the state.

Ohioans voted 53% Republican and 45% Democratic in the 2020 presidential election. Its current U.S. House delegation contains three Democrats and 11 Republicans, with two vacant seats to be decided in the election Nov. 2. The 11th District was previously held by a Democrat and the 15th District by a Republican.

Fair Districts Ohio sponsored a public map-drawing contest. Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio — a member of the Fair Districts Ohio coalition — brought the winning submissions.

“It is clear that it is possible to create fair, functional and constitutionally compliant maps,” Turcer said.

She said the three winning maps took care not to dilute minority representation. Creating more competitive districts will improve accountability among Ohio’s congressional delegation, something Ohioans want, Turcer said.

State Auditor Keith Faber, a commission member, said it’s inevitable that some districts will always be dominated by one party or the other.

Turcer agreed, but said mapmakers should strive for a balance between competitiveness and other factors such as compactness and following existing jurisdictional lines.

Samuel Gresham, a member of Common Cause and the Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission, warned Republicans that their current electoral advantage would not last forever, as earlier Democratic control didn’t. He urged the commission to draw fair maps, saying voters were watching.

Minorities have long been the ones suffering the most negative impacts of gerrymandering, Gresham said, framing the redistricting debate as a civil rights issue.

“I hope you will find a way to be fair and honest about this process,” he said.

Following the three-hour hearing, commission co-chair state Sen. Virgil Sykes, D-Akron, said members gleaned useful data from the presentations, giving them a better understanding of what the public wants. Cupp called it “a good beginning” to the General Assembly’s process.

Sykes said map-drawing hearings in the legislature could start next week. He pledged to be as open and informative as possible with the public.

Cupp said, however, that while there will be additional public meetings, holding open negotiations among legislators is “not a practical, feasible process.”

“I have yet to see any negotiations that take place in full view of everybody that lead to anything productive,” he said.

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

Ohio must lose one of its 16 U.S. House districts, as required by 2020 census results. Each of the 15 new districts will contain about 780,000 people. The new process for drawing those districts, established in 2018 via state constitutional amendment, says legislators must hold at least two public hearings before approving a map.

The General Assembly missed a Sept. 30 deadline to create a new congressional district map, without holding any public discussions. That threw the job to the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which has a Oct. 31 constitutional deadline.

The redistricting commission includes Gov. Mike DeWine; Secretary of State Frank LaRose; Faber; Cupp; Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima; Vernon Sykes; and House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron. Co-chairs Cupp and Vernon Sykes must both agree to convene a meeting.

The General Assembly will have from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30 to ratify a map. If a proposal can earn support of a three-fifths majority, including one-third of Democrats — three in the Senate and 12 in the House — it will be valid for 10 years.

Failing that, legislators can pass a map by simple majority vote, but it would have to be redone in four years.

Mapping Ohio Politics

Who’s drawing new electoral maps and why?

In 2015 Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment creating a bipartisan commission to draw new state legislative maps, in an effort to reduce partisan gerrymandering. In 2018 voters approved another amendment on how to draw new district maps for Ohio’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Reflecting state government’s current makeup, the Ohio Redistricting Commission has five Republican and two Democratic members.

New districts for both the Ohio General Assembly and U.S. House seats must be drawn based on the results of a new U.S. Census. The 2020 census resulted in Ohio losing one of its 16 current U.S. House seats. The release of census data was also delayed four months by COVID-19, which some commission members blamed for the group’s slow progress.

So what is the redistricting process?

For Ohio House and Senate seats, the redistricting commission faced a Sept. 15 deadline to agree upon new maps. The body held public hearings around the state but negotiated in private. If they approved a map with support from at least two members of each party — in effect, requiring support of both Democratic members — it would be valid for a decade, until the next census. If the commission approved maps without bipartisan support, it would have to be redone in four years.

For U.S. House seats, the General Assembly had until Sept. 30 to draw a new district map. But legislators made little or no attempt to do so, which sent the task back to the redistricting commission. Under the 2018 amendment, the commission has until Oct. 31 to agree on a map. If it doesn’t do so, it reverts to the General Assembly with a Nov. 30 deadline.

Where do things stand now?

Commissioners barely met the deadline for new Ohio House and Senate maps, approving them at midnight Sept. 15. But they passed on a 5-2 vote without Democratic support. That means the process must be redone in four years. Already three lawsuits have been filed arguing that the maps remain gerrymandered to maintain the Republican supermajority in both House and Senate.

Two public hearings are required for approval of new congressional district maps. The redistricting commission has held one, but members acknowledge they won’t meet the Oct. 31 deadline. Now the General Assembly steps back in; if legislators can create a 15-district map that garners a three-fifths overall majority and support from one-third of Democrats, it will be valid for a decade. If not, they can accept a map by simple majority vote without bipartisan support. But, like the state district maps, it would then have to be redone in four years.

About the Author