State redistricting debate, calls to avoid gerrymandering continue ahead of vote

After hearings across the state in recent weeks and hours of testimony, hints of at a possible bipartisan compromise emerged during the final public hearing Tuesday on new political maps for Ohio legislative seats.

The group charged with drawing new state House and Senate district maps by Sept. 15 held its last public hearing Tuesday afternoon at the Ohio Statehouse, with more than four hours of testimony but few questions from commission members.

The commission voted 5-2 last week, along partisan lines, to adopt a Republican Senate proposal as its basis for discussion. Members of voting rights groups have decried that set of maps as just as bad or worse than the maps that have been in force since 2011.

Republicans won about 54% of the vote statewide, but control a supermajority of the 99 state House and 33 state Senate seats. The Republican-proposed map would likely perpetuate or increase that lock, according to the voting rights advocates.

Commission co-chair Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, prepared to adjourn the meeting Tuesday afternoon, but state Auditor Keith Faber called instead for a recess to allow for possible formal action later in the day. As of deadline, the group was still recessed.

Dozens of people spoke before the commission, but not nearly as many as anticipated — a remote location in Marietta was empty.

All seven commission members were briefly present, but Republican members drifted in and out, which drew some comment from speakers.

“Why the heck am I here when the people who have the power can’t even show me the respect of being here?” said Andrea Yagoda of Delaware County. All five Republican members were gone at the time, replaced by proxies; though House Speaker Bob Cupp came back in shortly after Yagoda’s complaint.

She questioned whether commission members had actually been working on revisions to the map proposal.

After the hearing, several commission members said negotiations have been ongoing and held out the possibility of a bipartisan agreement.

Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2015 to establish a commission to draw new district maps. This is the first time maps have been drawn through this process, using 2020 census data. The commission members have a deadline of today, Sept. 15. If maps are approved along partisan lines, the process must be repeated in four years. If the map is supported by the commission’s two Democratic members, it will endure for a decade.

A few members of the public suggested that the three statewide Republican officials on the commission – Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Faber – work with Democratic members Sen. Vernon Sykes and House Minority Member Emilia Sykes since the statewide officials don’t have legislative districts to protect.

More than two dozen map proposals have been submitted to the commission, including one from the House and Senate Democratic Caucus which was mentioned several times.

Numerous voting rights groups sent in proposals, which they argue are far fairer in reflecting voters’ preferences and allowing for some competition than the official Republican or Democratic submissions.

“We’ve done the work for you,” said Common Cause Ohio Chairman Samuel Gresham, member of the Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission, which submitted a detailed proposal. “And I want to let you know if you adopt another map and we have to go to court, we’re going to use our map to show the difference.”

Multiple speakers said the current proposals, like the maps in use since 2011, dilute minority votes by “packing and cracking” communities.

“This has been a blatant unfairness for generations,” said the Rev. Joel King, first vice president of the Columbus NAACP.

Mia Lewis of Common Cause Ohio said that group would urge commissioners to miss their deadline in favor of working in detail on fairer maps. That idea didn’t draw widespread endorsement.

“We are not going to choose between a fair process and a fair map. We need both,” said Katy Shanahan, member of the Equal Districts Coalition and state director for anti-gerrymandering group All On The Line.

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