No one knows what’s next for Ohio House, Senate maps

Credit: Julie Carr Smyth

Credit: Julie Carr Smyth

The failure of the Ohio Redistricting Commission to approve new state House and Senate district maps Thursday night, in defiance of an Ohio Supreme Court order, led to a flurry of Friday legal filings and continued confusion among candidates for those still-undetermined seats.

The League of Women Voters of Ohio, lead plaintiff in one challenge to the Republican-drawn maps the court has overturned, on Friday asked justices to require commissioners to explain their failure. The petition notes Gov. Mike DeWine’s acknowledgement that the commission was obligated to produce new maps.

Democratic commission members submitted a proposal Feb. 9, but Republican members didn’t convene a meeting until the last day of the court-ordered deadline. Commissioners then voted 5-2 along party lines to reject the Democratic plan, but Republicans did not submit any new maps of their own or take up proposals from others, the petition says.

“Once again, we look to Ohio’s highest court to uphold up the Ohio Constitution and the rights of Ohio voters,” said Jen Miller, the league’s executive director. “Our goal is quite simple: ensuring that the people of Ohio have Senate and House districts that serve them, not the short-sighted interests of political operatives. The good news is that such maps already exist — the mapmakers just need to find the political courage to put voters first and adopt them.”

Plaintiffs in a closely related case filed a similar motion Friday, saying the court has twice given commissioners clear instructions on map-drawing.

“The question now is thus not what the law is, but what happens when the commission refuses to follow the rule of law,” says the petition filed on behalf of Bria Bennett et al.

Meanwhile, seven individuals headed by Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio against the commission and one of its members, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, arguing that voters’ civil rights are being violated by the district maps in place since 2011 due to population shifts since then.

“Until valid redistricting occurs, Ohioans, including plaintiffs, cannot decide which candidates to support, cannot decide to run or to encourage candidates to run, cannot educate themselves or others on the positions of candidates in their districts and prepare to hold those candidates responsible, and cannot associate with others in their district,” the lawsuit says.

It urges the federal court to order use of the second Republican-drawn map proposal, which on Feb. 7 the Ohio Supreme Court ruled unconstitutionally favors Republicans.

Currently, Republicans hold 25 of the 33 Senate seats and 64 of the 99 House seats.

The maps overturned Feb. 7 would give Republicans the advantage in 57 House and 20 Senate districts. But 12 of the proposed Democratic-leaning House and four of the Senate districts only favor Democrats by razor-thin margins, while none of the Republican-leaning seats are as close, according to a summary of the plan.

Candidates’ conundrum

The seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission approved new state House and Senate district maps right on the legal deadline: midnight Sept. 15. But those maps passed by a 5-2 party-line vote, without any Democratic support, and would have maintained or increased Republicans’ majorities in both legislative houses.

Progressive and voting-rights groups sued, and the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 last month that the maps unconstitutionally favored Republicans, who win statewide elections by roughly 54% to 46%.

Republicans approved a second map proposal without Democratic support, and the court also rejected that on Feb. 7, giving the redistricting commission 10 days to draw new ones.

On Friday morning, the commission filed notice with the supreme court that it had reached an impasse.

That leaves candidates for all state House and a third of state Senate seats in limbo.

State Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., chair of the Montgomery Party Republican Party, said no one knows what the final process is going to be, including whether filing for office will be reopened when new maps are finally in place. Candidates can still fundraise, but they’re uncertain if they’ll face a primary challenge, he said.

“How it affects your campaign is just kind of a void, because you don’t know where to begin your campaign,” Plummer said. But he doesn’t think the General Assembly should postpone the primary for House and Senate seats, he said.

The people who filed to run for office already did their work: getting petition signatures and meeting filing deadlines, Plummer said.

“We’re ready. We’re just waiting for the final word,” he said.

State Rep. Willis Blackshear, D-Dayton, is running for reelection without knowing exactly who he’ll represent — and other candidates are doing the same, he said.

“I must say that this whole process has been frustrating. The commission should’ve gotten it right the first time by drawing fair maps,” Blackshear said.

The first time the court threw out Republicans’ map proposal, that should’ve been a sign they needed to do things right, he said.

Now, two weeks past the election filing deadline and with military early voting scheduled to start in just four weeks, people are calling him to ask if they’re still in his district, Blackshear said.

“I don’t know what happens now,” he said.

Blackshear said he and other candidates can only keep fundraising and doing community outreach until their district lines are settled.

“All we can do is go with what we know,” he said.

Ohioans voted overwhelmingly to reform redistricting in 2015 and 2018, Blackshear said.

“This whole process has basically been a slap in their face,” he said.

State Rep. Bill Dean, R-Xenia, said a colleague sent him a new district map — but Dean wasn’t certain of its origin. It was probably the latest Democratic proposal, he said. That’s what Republican commission members rejected Thursday night.

“I really don’t know what the maps are, and it hasn’t been finalized,” Dean said.

Under the maps in place since 2011, Dean’s district covers Madison County, the eastern part of Greene County and three townships in Clark County.

“The maps I’ve seen today, it’s all in Greene County right now,” he said. “There was a guy primarying me, supposedly. But if my district’s just in Greene County, it’ll cut him out.”

No precedent for officials

Bob Taft — Republican former governor, secretary of state and state legislator, and now a distinguished research associate at University of Dayton — said he was surprised the Republican-dominated commission didn’t approve any new plan Thursday night. He’s not aware of any precedent for this situation.

Taft served on state redistricting commissions in 1991 and 2001, when he was secretary of state and governor, respectively. That was before Ohio voters approved constitutional amendments to change the process. At the time, the Republican majority could pass new maps with a simple majority vote, he said.

“We had hearings around the state, a plan was prepared and approved,” Taft said. “We tried to anticipate any potential constitutional challenges and draft it accordingly.”

Redistricting was acknowledged to be a partisan process then, he said. But now, in the first test of the constitutional amendments’ language, the result is a standoff between branches of government. That’s complicated by the fact that the court is constitutionally prohibited from drawing new district lines itself, Taft said.

“It’s very difficult to know how it will be resolved,” he said.

The Montgomery County Board of Elections is scheduled to certify the petitions of state House and Senate candidates on March 8. But otherwise, county-level election officials are waiting just like candidates, said Brian Sleeth, Warren County Board of Elections director and president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

“We haven’t heard anything yet,” he said. “We’re really in a holding pattern here until we get some further guidance from the state.”

County election officials are still told to plan for holding the May 3 primary as scheduled, Sleeth said.

“But with no maps, we’re still not sure how that’s going to happen,” he said.

In a joint statement, he and OAEO First Vice-President Sherry Poland said they’ll keep working with LaRose’s office to determine how the delay will impact election timelines and administration.

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