COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Republican-dominated commission charged with redrawing the maps of Ohio’s legislative districts voted along partisan lines Thursday to use a proposed GOP map as the starting point for three days of public testimony.
The 5-2 vote set up a breakneck schedule that in theory will see the commission approve a final version of the map Sept. 15, although Thursday’s meeting made it clear that Democrats and Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission have a lot of work to do before then.
Even Ohio’s GOP elections chief, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, said the map introduced Thursday is far from perfect, though he voted for it — calling it a “work in progress” — to get the revision process started.
“I think it needs substantial work,” said LaRose, a redistricting commission member.
The commission set hearings Sunday in Dayton, Monday in Cleveland and Tuesday in Columbus before the Sept. 15 vote.
Ohio voters in 2015 and 2018 approved constitutional amendments that created a new process for drawing both state legislative and congressional district maps this year and set up the independent commission.
The commission’s goal is producing a map that represents 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, controlling 64 of 99 seats in the House and 25 of 33 seats in the Senate. Some redistricting analyses say the divide should be closer to 55-44 in the house and 19-14 in the Senate.
Creating a 10-year map requires a majority vote of the commission, including both Democrats. Creating a 4-year map requires a simple majority of the commission without both Democrats.
Both LaRose and GOP state Auditor Keith Faber, also a commission member, said Thursday they favor a 10-year map and pledged to work with Democrats through the weekend to achieve that goal.
The redistricting commission missed its Sept. 1 deadline, triggering an extension until the middle of the month. Republican commission members 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.
Senate Democrats submitted their proposed map last week.
The map approved by the commission Thursday afternoon was unveiled just hours earlier, based on work done by House and Senate Republicans. The GOP map reduces the number of counties and cities split between districts as compared to the current maps created in 2011, Ray DiRossi, an aide with the Senate Republican caucus, told the commission.
DiRossi said the map complies with requirements for legislative districts laid out in the Ohio Constitution. Under questioning from Rep. Emilia Sykes of Akron, the top House Democrat, he acknowledged that the GOP map did not use racial or demographic data at the request of legislative leaders.
Sykes and her father, Democratic Sen. Vernon Sykes, the commission co-chair, voted against moving forward with the map.
“Reviewing it, it seems that the partisan proportions are worse than what they are existing today,” Vernon Sykes said.
Witnesses on Thursday chided the commission for rushing the process, including calling Thursday’s meeting with only 24 hours’ notice and then not providing a copy of the GOP map ahead of time. They also urged the commission to allow for more input from the public and experts.
The process to date “has made me and many others wonder whether this will be a fair mapping assessment and completion, or whether it will be reduced to backroom antics, and more gerrymandered, unfair, embarrassing and undemocratic districts,” Mindy Hedges, a resident of Radnor in Delaware County, told the commission.
The panel held nine public hearings around the state earlier this month looking for input on a new map.
A few witnesses defended the maps, saying that it’s fair that Republicans are favored because they make up a majority of Ohio voters.
But an Associated Press analysis found that Republican politicians used census data after election victories 10 years ago to draw voting districts that gave them a greater political advantage in more states than either party had in the past 50 years. Voters in Ohio have some of the nation’s most gerrymandered maps, the AP found.