GOP-led Ohio Legislature OKs fast-tracked congressional map

Ohio’s new congressional district map has cleared the Republican-controlled state Legislature at a breakneck pace

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s new map of congressional districts cleared the state Legislature along party lines Thursday, after a breakneck sprint through both chambers that was defended by majority Republicans and decried by Democrats and voting-rights advocates.

Opponents immediately stepped up pressure on Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to veto the plan, which Republicans defend as more competitive than any other map considered.

The plan creates at most three safe Democratic districts out of 15 new U.S. House seats in a state where voters are split roughly 54% Republican, 46% Democratic. The nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the map an F grade.

The map divides populous Cuyahoga and Hamilton counties — the respective homes to Cleveland and Cincinnati and their concentrations of Democratic voters — three ways each. Franklin County, home to Columbus, is divided two ways. It also draws the western Cleveland suburbs in Lorain County into a district that stretches to the Indiana border, a nearly 3-hour drive.

State Rep. D.J. Swearingen, a Republican, defended the map as fair, constitutional and not unduly favoring either political party or its incumbents.

Swearingen reiterated the position of sponsoring Sen. Rob McColley, a Republican who’s been arguing in hearings since the map’s latest iteration was released late Monday that the final plan is superior in competitiveness and captures the spirit of what voters asked for in a 2018 constitutional amendment.

“If you have the right candidate on the right issues, you can win a competitive district,” he said. “Whereas, the Democratic map that was offered in the House offered a determined outcome.”

Swearingen criticized national groups, including the National Democratic Redistricting Committee backed by former Attorney General Eric Holder, for interjecting themselves into Ohio’s process.

Democrats, meanwhile, blasted the Republican-led map-drawing process as unfair, partisan and cloaked in secrecy.

“The legislators and the redistricting commission have failed the people miserably and should be ashamed of themselves,” said Democratic state Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson, the former mayor of Toledo, ahead of the House’s 55-36 vote. “You did not deserve our votes, and you do not deserve our respect.”

The Senate approved the bill Tuesday, about 16 hours after the new map was released.

Under a new process established under a popular 2018 constitutional amendment, creating a 10-year map — the ideal — would have required robust Democratic support. Without it, the plan will last only four years.

That is, if DeWine signs it and it withstands an almost certain court challenge. Fair Districts Ohio, a coalition of voting-rights groups and labor organizations, called on him to strike down the bill.

“The Buckeye State was supposed to be the poster child of bipartisan, transparent redistricting,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, a member organization. “Instead, Ohio leaders have disrespected voters, trampled the Ohio Constitution and rigged the congressional map to serve partisan, political operatives rather than fairly represent Ohioans.”

A spokesman for DeWine said that he had been briefed on the redistricting process but would likely not comment until a vote was taken and he had physically received the bill.

States must redraw their congressional districts every 10 years to reflect new population numbers. Under this year's U.S. Census results, delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ohio lost one seat in Congress starting next year — taking it from 16 to 15.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, pointedly took on Democrats during Thursday’s floor debate, suggesting perhaps it’s their party leadership and not the map that’s holding their candidates back. He questioned their cries of unfairness as disingenuous.

“There’s been enough hypocrisy around this issue to fill a Texas-sized outhouse,” he said.