Deadlines looming in Ohio redistricting fights; what will the courts do?

All eyes are on state and federal courts with yet another deadline arriving in Ohio’s deadlocked redistricting process.

Election officials have said new Ohio House and Senate district maps need to be in place by April 20 to provide enough time for a primary election Aug. 2 for those state legislative seats. And a federal court has indicated it may intervene if the state hasn’t settled the issue by April 20.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission, responsible for approving legislative district maps, has not announced any upcoming meetings despite that deadline and a May 6 deadline set by the Ohio Supreme Court for the commission to approve a fifth set of maps.

Brian Sleeth, Warren County Board of Elections director and president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said he has heard a relevant announcement might come Wednesday from the Ohio Supreme Court.

“We’re not all sure what, but the association did send out a letter encouraging Aug. 2,″ as the primary date, Sleeth said.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on April 14 that a fourth set of legislative district maps was unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans — the same reason given for rejecting the previous three sets. The state court gave the Ohio Redistricting Commission until May 6 to come up with an “entirely new” plan, more than seven months after state House and Senate maps were supposed to be in place.

The Ohio Supreme Court had ordered a de facto reduction in Republican districts by insisting on a proportion of seats that met Ohio voters’ actual preferences in the last few elections. That breakdown is 54% Republican and 46% Democratic. Under the maps in place since 2012, Republicans hold a supermajority in both houses.

A Republican-backed lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio asks the federal judiciary to intervene and impose a set of maps for state use: specifically, the third set approved by the redistricting commission, which the state supreme court threw out March 16.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court decided on March 30 not to intervene in the state process — yet. But those judges agreed they might do so if the issue wasn’t resolved by April 20.

The Ohio Supreme Court, in rejecting the fourth set of maps, asked the federal court to allow the state process to play out.

On Monday the redistricting commission’s two Democratic members, state Sen. Vernon Sykes of Akron and House Minority Leader Allison Russo of Upper Arlington, sent a letter to the five Republican commissioners asking for the body to reconvene.

It says Sykes, commission co-chair, repeatedly called House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, to make that request but received no answer. Cupp is the other co-chair.

“We have confirmed through our staff that our original independent map drawers are available to return and all mapmaking may again be accomplished in full public view,” Sykes and Russo said. The commission should ask the independent mapmakers to finalize their earlier work and incorporate any further input from commissioners, the letter says.

“We can then take a vote on a constitutional plan in advance of the Supreme Court of Ohio’s May 6, 2022, deadline,” Sykes and Russo wrote. “It takes three of us commissioners to call a meeting and restart our work. The two of us stand ready to work with all of you to do our duty to draft and adopt fair and constitutional maps. Any one of you could join us in scheduling our next meeting of the commission, fulfilling our constitutional obligation.”

So far the five Republican members have not responded, according to Mallory Golski, Senate Democratic Caucus deputy communications director.

A spokesperson for Cupp did not immediately reply to questions on when or whether the commission would meet again.

On Tuesday afternoon LaRose sent a letter to legislative leaders and Gov. Mike DeWine — who is also a member of the redistricting commission — saying the supreme court’s most recent opinion included “misinformation” that April 20 was an artificial deadline.

“Let me be clear: There’s nothing artificial about the timelines provided by my office to the court,” LaRose wrote. Election officials must follow a 90-day calendar, with 60 days to prepare for an election and 30 days to conclude it.

“If you apply the 90-day calendar established in state law to the available dates between May 3 (the statutorily scheduled statewide primary election) and Nov. 8 (the general election), it takes us to — you guessed it — Aug. 2,” he wrote.

As a result of the map-drawing fiasco, state House and Senate races will not appear on the May 3 primary ballot. Those seats will have to be settled in a second primary, which legislators have yet to schedule.

“We’re very limited on when we can do the special election,” Sleeth said.

Some special elections, such as for local tax levies, are already scheduled for Aug. 2, so that would be an ideal time for state House and Senate primaries, too, he said. Choosing any other Tuesday close to that would require moving the already scheduled special elections, too, which would be “incredibly hard and incredibly confusing for voters,” Sleeth said.

“September, that has to be out of the question. And any further than that is interfering with our November election,” he said.

Whenever the primary is scheduled, Sleeth said, county election boards will need poll workers to volunteer well in advance.

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