COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The panel charged with redrawing Ohio’s state legislative districts for the next 10 years will miss its Wednesday deadline, triggering an extension until the middle of the month.
While Senate Democrats submitted the first map of the process on Tuesday, other maps are in the works, drawn by GOP lawmakers and others. Ohio is using a new redistricting process for the first time this year that was approved by voters through state ballot issues in 2015 and 2018.
GOP members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission blamed the delayed release of 2020 census figures, which arrived earlier this month — more than four months after the April 1 date on which they normally arrive, because of the impact of the coronavirus. Democrats say there was time to meet Wednesday’s deadline.
A look at the process as it stands, what comes next, and why it matters.
WHY DID THE PANEL MISS THE DEADLINE?
The information was supposed to be released at the end of March but was pushed back to August to give Census Bureau statisticians more time to crunch the numbers that came in late because of delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The postponement sent states scrambling to change their redistricting deadlines.
Alabama and Ohio — the latter via state GOP Attorney General Dave Yost — sued the Census Bureau in an effort to get the redistricting data released sooner. As part of a settlement agreement with Ohio, the bureau promised to release the redistricting data no later than Aug. 16 — a date it had previously picked for releasing the numbers in an older format.
Yost alleged the delay threatened Ohio’s ability to meet the redistricting deadlines approved by voters and set in its state Constitution.
“We were thrown a curve ball,” Frank LaRose, the Republican Ohio Secretary of State and a commission member, said Tuesday. “We were given an inexplicable delay by the U.S. Census Bureau that has put us in a very untenable situation.”
The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, whose members are all Democrats, and the Equal Districts Coalition — a left-leaning group of unions and advocacy groups — questioned Wednesday whether a delay was inevitable. Maps produced as of Tuesday by Senate Democrats, a citizens group and individual Ohioans show it was possible to make the deadline, the caucus said.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The next deadline is Sept. 15, by which time commission members say they hope to have a single map to present to the public. That map is likely to be one created by a political caucus — Republican or Democrat — that the commission agrees to. While the commission itself doesn’t create maps, it could vote on changes to whichever map it selects, according to House Speaker Bob Cupp, a Lima Republican and commission co-chair.
The map submitted by Senate Democrats on Tuesday included 44 likely Democratic districts and 55 likely Republican districts in the House, and 14 likely Democratic districts and 19 likely Republican districts in the Senate.
Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican and commission member, said the map failed to protect incumbent senators as required by the mapmaking process. Changes to address that question were made to the map Wednesday, said Sen. Vernon Sykes, an Akron Democrat and commission co-chair. But without question, more maps are on the way.
“We could have four caucus legislative maps and then multiple maps presented by the public,” Huffman said.
Under rules adopted by the commission Tuesday, whatever map comes out of the process will have three public hearings in different locations. Creating a 10-year map requires a majority vote of the commission, including both Democrats. Creating a four-year map requires a simple majority of the commission without both Democrats.
WHY DOES REDISTRICTING MATTER?
The goal of any legislative district map is to represent as fairly as possible the political makeup of the state. An imbalanced Legislature — meaning one that contains members of either political party whose numbers don’t reflect actual voter preference — can skew the creation of laws on everything from abortion to gun control to school funding and energy policy.
Republicans in Ohio currently have supermajorities in the House and Senate.
At public hearings around the state last month looking for input on a new map, a few witnesses defended the current maps. They argued that it’s fair that Republicans are favored because they make up a majority of Ohio voters. One scholar put the divide at 53% Republicans, 45% Democrats.
But an Associated Press analysis has found that Ohio’s maps are among the nation’s most gerrymandered, during a period when Republicans won more seats than would have been expected based on the percentage of votes they received.
WHAT ABOUT CONGRESSIONAL MAPS?
The General Assembly has to complete a new map of the state’s congressional districts, which will be reduced from 16 to 15 as a result of lagging population growth, by Sept. 30. The redistricting commission would only get involved in that second process if state lawmakers cannot come to an agreement.