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Voter-rights advocates call for Ohio leaders to salvage transparency in languishing redistricting process

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 9/3/2021 Andrew J. Tobias, cleveland.com
a group of people standing in front of a mirror: Gov. Mike DeWine (center) swears in members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission on Aug. 6, 2021 at the Ohio Statehouse. They are, from left to right: Senate President Matt Huffman, State Auditor Keith Faber, House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, House Speaker Bob Cupp, and state Sen. Vernon Sykes. © Andrew J. Tobias/cleveland.com Gov. Mike DeWine (center) swears in members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission on Aug. 6, 2021 at the Ohio Statehouse. They are, from left to right: Senate President Matt Huffman, State Auditor Keith Faber, House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, House Speaker Bob Cupp, and state Sen. Vernon Sykes.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio’s new redistricting system, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2015 to correct gerrymandering, is designed to encourage bipartisan cooperation and create more politically balanced maps.

But Republicans who control the process haven’t started collaborating with Democrats, after failing to even introduce a map despite a Sept. 1 constitutional deadline. And during a Tuesday meeting of the Ohio Redistricting Commission, Republican and Democratic members couldn’t even agree on basic procedural issues, like how bipartisan maps will be drawn, how they are supposed to be introduced and when the commission might meet next.

Meanwhile, Republicans are continuing their work behind the scenes ahead of a looming Sept. 15, last-ditch deadline.

Voter-rights advocates who played a key role in pushing for the new system said Friday they’re worried, but hopeful the process can be salvaged.

“The fact is we have no plan and no clarity on the process, or even how Republicans and Democrats are going to work together,” said Jen Miller, leader of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, which played a key role in passing the new redistricting system.

“We’re concerned some deadlines were missed, and there’s the potential for more deadlines to be missed … We call on the map makers to right this ship now,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a good government group.

And if things don’t shape up?

“If we need to look at litigation or even get our clipboards back out, this is a 50-year campaign for the League of Women Voters for Ohio, so we’re not going to stop today,” Miller said.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission, created under the 2015 voter-backed reforms, is a panel of five elected Republicans and two Democrats tasked with redrawing Ohio’s state legislative lines. The commission now is focused on completing maps by Sept. 15, the final deadline set in the new redistricting system. Officials on the commission on Friday either said there were no updates or didn’t immediately respond to inquiries.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission is composed of five Republicans — Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, State Auditor Keith Faber, House Speaker Bob Cupp, Senate President Matt Huffman — and two Democrats: House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes and her father, Sen. Vernon Sykes.

Before the Sept. 1 deadline, the Ohio constitution said Republicans could only pass maps with votes from the commission’s Democrats. Now, Republicans can pass maps on their own — but those would only last four years, instead of 10-year maps they still can pass with Democratic support. The new rules also limit how districts can be split and say lines can’t favor or disfavor either political party.

Republican Attorney General Dave Yost has said Ohioans were “irreparably harmed” when the commission missed the deadline to introduce or pass a map. Yost made similar arguments in court about the deadline’s importance earlier this year during a successful lawsuit against the U.S. Census Bureau, which his office has bragged allowed for the census data to be released in time to meet state redistricting deadlines.

Republicans have said they missed the Sept. 1 deadline because of the months-long delay in the completion of the U.S. Census, the results of which are used as the building blocks for legislative districts. They’ve said they don’t want to rush, since Ohio and other states only got census data in mid August. They’ve also contended the constitution doesn’t actually require them to introduce a map yet.

But Senate Democrats this week floated a map – which the commission did not officially take up – which they and voting-rights groups said is proof that Republicans could have hit the deadline too. The maps stand little chance of passing, and Republicans quickly pointed out what they said were technical and legal flaws.

The League of Women Voters and Common Cause Ohio briefed reporters on Friday on Senate Democrats’ maps. Christopher Cusack, a geography professor working with Common Cause Ohio, said the maps generally seems to pass legal muster, score well for compactness and are a “very good starting point.”

“I think these maps can provide a basis or a benchmark for moving forward,” he said. “We’ll see what the commission wants to do.”

Senate Democrats’ maps would create Ohio’s House and Senate districts likely to split 55% Republican and 45% Democrat, roughly equal to Ohioans’ recent statewide voting patterns. Significantly, the district maps on paper would cause Republicans to lose a dozen or more seats, resulting in a loss of their veto-proof supermajority in both the House and Senate, which they have when they control at least 60% of seats in either chamber.

From a voter standpoint though, the maps have a major flaw. A key anti-gerrymandering argument is that partisan line-drawing breeds political extremism, because when a candidate doesn’t have a serious general election opponent, they only cater to primary voters. Democrats’ maps offer four competitive races out of 33 Senate seats, and 22 competitive House seats out of the 99 total. That’s basically as competitive as Ohio’s current seats, which score very poorly for competitiveness, according to an analysis from Dave’s Redistricting, a popular redistricting site.

Senate Democrats’ maps also score worse on minority representation than the current ones, according to Dave’s Redistricting.

Renew Ohio, a redistricting group run by lobbyists with close ties to Ohio House Republicans, on Friday gave Senate Democrats’ maps an “F” grade. Jeff Jacobson, a former Republican lawmaker who’s worked closely on redistricting issues, said they improperly split Trumbull County, unfairly separate common communities in pursuit of political proportionality, and likely violate the Voting Rights Act, among other issues.

“Come to think of it, the only difference between the much-hooted ‘snake-on-the-lake’ and ‘duck district’ of 2010 and these similarly-ridiculous, but offered-with-a-straight-face districts is which side happens to be holding the pen,” Jacobson said in a written analysis that reference two infamously gerrymandered Ohio congressional districts.

Asked about the lack of competitive districts in Senate Democrats’ plan, Miller said her coalition has yet to take a position on the maps.

“We understand that many things need to be balanced out, but the bottom line is when we have more competitive districts, and we actually have the overall proportion of seats mirroring the preferences of Ohio voters, we should see a more functional Ohio democracy,” Miller said.

Another issue that voting-rights group addressed on Friday: Senate Republicans’ contention that the Senate Democrats’ maps were illegal because they weren’t designed to properly account for assigning incumbent senators who will be in the middle of their terms when the redesigned maps take effect next year.

Brian Glassman, a retired Cleveland State University law professor who specializes in elections law, said during the voting-rights groups’ briefing that the incumbent senators issue has nothing to do with district design.

“There is no role stated for incumbents to be active participants in the map drawing process,” he said.

In addition to the state legislative redistricting process, state officials also have an upcoming deadline to redraw Ohio’s 15 congressional districts. The state legislature has until Sept. 30 to pass maps, requiring 60% overall support and votes from 50% of Democrats. If it fails to do so, responsibility goes to the Ohio Redistricting Commission. If the commission can’t come up with a plan with support of both of its Democrats by Oct. 31, responsibility goes back to the legislature with a lower threshold for bipartisan support and a final Nov. 30 deadline.

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