Congressional maps debated while state House, Senate maps awaited

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

The Ohio Redistricting Commission reached no conclusions Wednesday on a new map of Ohio congressional districts, but did entertain presentations on several map proposals from the general public, political and voting-rights groups.

All those proposed maps were submitted over the past few months as the redistricting process moved between the commission and the General Assembly, but previously commission members have not directly considered any submissions other than those from their own party caucuses.

That changed after the Ohio Supreme Court on Jan. 14 threw out the congressional map legislators passed in November as unfairly favoring Republicans. The General Assembly took no action, however, and gave the job back to the redistricting commission. Now the seven-member commission has until March 16 to approve a new map that cuts Ohio’s U.S. House districts from 16 to 15, in line with 2020 census results.

Commissioners heard three in-person presentations Wednesday afternoon; and state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, commission co-chair, said four more proposals were submitted in writing. The presentations included one by a Toledo man, Paul Miller, who argued that his map was the only proposal “without partisan bias.” It would create districts that voting projections estimate would give Democrats a maximum of four safe seats. Catherine Turcer of Fair Districts Ohio presented a conglomeration of the maps her coalition chose as contest winners from dozens of submissions last year. That proposal would likely create eight or nine Republican seats, she said.

Currently Ohio is represented by 12 Republicans and four Democrats.

At the end of Wednesday’s meeting Sykes asked his co-chair, House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, whether a new proposal for state House and Senate district maps would be unveiled when the commission reconvened Thursday. The commission is also charged with drawing those.

Cupp replied that was coming “as soon as possible.” “Is ‘soon’ tomorrow?” Sykes asked.

“I do not know,” Cupp said.

House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, noted that briefs filed Wednesday for Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, claimed new House and Senate maps would be ready for a commission vote within the week. But Democrats are still being frozen out of negotiations, she said, asking for collaboration between legislative staffs.

Russo also asked if the commission would keep meeting through the weekend.

“To be determined,” Cupp said.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission, established by the 2015 constitutional amendment that sought to reduce partisan gerrymandering, consists of Cupp, Sykes, Huffman, Russo, Gov. Mike DeWine, Auditor Keith Faber and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Republicans outnumber Democrats on the commission 5-2.

Legal filings

Prior to the meeting, commission members addressed their ongoing conflict with the Ohio Supreme Court, which had threatened to hold them in contempt if they didn’t explain by noon Wednesday why they had not passed constitutionally-compliant state House and Senate maps in line with a court order.

A filing by attorneys on behalf of Cupp and Huffman says a contempt finding would be “inappropriate” because the court “did not order the Speaker or the President (nor any of the five other Commission members) to do anything; consequently, they have not violated any order.”

The court’s order was directed at the commission as a body, not its individual members; and the commission really tried, but the only alternative plan considered – offered by Democrats – was unconstitutional, it says.

“Even though the Commission was unable to adopt a plan by February 17, members of the Commission have continued to work on a plan. The Speaker and President anticipate that the Commission will be in a position to vote on a new plan this week.”

A filing for Sykes and Russo is signed by them personally.

“We apologize to the Court for the Commission’s failures,” it says. They did all they could to comply, sought cooperation with Republicans, and believe their map proposal was constitutional but lacked the power to pass it on their own, Sykes and Russo said.

They ask the court to declare their map proposal constitutional, or order the Republican commissioners to detail why they think it isn’t.

The filing for LaRose and Faber says they tried, but couldn’t do it in 10 days. Contrary to what commissioners declared Feb. 17, LaRose and Faber say they don’t believe the commission is at an impasse.

“Ultimately, the Sykes/Russo Plan, some version of it, or a third yet-to-be-determined option will be enacted by the Commission,” the filing says. “It has to be, because Ohio needs House and Senate district maps to elect representatives and senators in 2022 and only the Commission is authorized to enact new district plans.”

On behalf of DeWine, Attorney General Dave Yost said DeWine is in “full compliance” with the court’s order, based on DeWine’s previous statement that the commission has to pass a map.

And for the commission as a whole, Yost said neither individuals nor the group should be held in contempt. He asks for “a few additional days” to pass new maps.

Other maps too

State House, Senate and U.S. House maps are all needed for the primary election, which is scheduled to be held May 3. In separate rulings, the Ohio Supreme Court also overturned the state House and Senate district maps previously approved by the commission – but on the same grounds as its rejection of the congressional map: that they were gerrymandered to favor Republicans.

All the proposals endorsed by the General Assembly or redistricting commission were Republican plans that passed without any Democratic support. Justices ruled 4-3 that the maps’ partisan breakdown should more closely resemble the way Ohioans have recently voted in statewide elections, which is about 54% Republican to 46% Democratic.

Following Wednesday’s meeting, LaRose said boards of elections in Ohio’s 88 counties prefer a single primary, and so does he.

“They’ve made it clear to me that that’s their preference,” he said.

There has been some talk of moving the state House and Senate primary to a later date, but holding all other elections on schedule the first week in May.

LaRose said he’s for a unified primary even if that comes later than May 3, but in any case district maps are needed quickly: boards of election can’t hold balloting for districts that don’t yet exist.

Huffman, also speaking to reporters afterward, said he thinks new state House and Senate maps will be ready – and possibly up for a vote – on Thursday.

“Our goal is to do precisely what the court asked,” he said.

But Huffman said he doesn’t know if that proposal will draw Democratic support.

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