Ohio redistricting process falters as panel hits impasse


By Julie Carr Smyth - Associated Press



COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio Redistricting Commission failed to meet a court-set deadline Thursday for fixing state legislative maps that were twice rejected by the state’s high court for being gerrymandered in favor of Republicans.

Republicans leading the panel threw up their hands and declared an impasse, after voting down an alternative map advanced by Democrats. The Ohio Supreme Court had issued its second rebuke in a row of the maps on Feb. 7 and set Thursday as the deadline for a new version.

The map-drawing process, driven by the 2020 Census, envisioned the new lines would be in place for the 2022 primary, which is May 3. Secretary of State Frank LaRose said the state is now precariously close to violating federal and state laws for carrying out the election.

But Republicans who hold the majority on the redistricting panel threw up their hands after a long afternoon and declared an impasse. That came after voting down an alternative map advanced by Democrats.

Democrats pushed hard to approve a set of 10-year legislative maps that better reflect Ohio’s partisan breakdown, but after 90 minutes of sharp back-and-forth debate, the maps failed on a party-line vote.

Democratic co-chair Sen. Vernon Sykes, a 30-year veteran of the Legislature, maligned majority Republicans for what he said was a dereliction of duty as the state’s ruling party.

“The majority has the responsibility and the authority to rule, to decide. They’ve got the numbers,” he said. “But in spite of the fact that you have supermajorities in the House and Senate, all the statewides (offices), the congressional delegation, this commission and the Ohio Supreme Court, you’ve been unable and unwilling to comply with our highest directive, and that is to comply with the constitution.”

House Democratic Leader Allison Russo led the fight for her party’s proposed district lines, boundaries that need to be redrawn after each U.S. Census to reflect a state’s population changes.

She insisted repeatedly that the latest maps met all provisions of the Ohio Constitution, and pushed back continually on Republican assertions that they were drawn intentionally to disfavor GOP candidates. The Democrats’ latest maps would have delivered roughly 45% of legislative seats to their party and 54% to the GOP.

A key point of contention was a provision of the constitutional amendment passed by Ohio voters that says no “plan” for districts can unduly favor or disfavor one particular party. Democrats contend the “plan” is each map — one for the Ohio House, one for the Ohio Senate — which must be drawn to fairly represent Ohio voters.

“When there is a gerrymander that must be undone, which is currently the situation we are under and (with) the maps as they are today, some of the unfairly favored members will lose their seats,” Russo said. “That is part of a gerrymandered map and districts.”

Republican Senate President Matt Huffman argued individual districts drawn to systematically unseat members of one party also serve that purpose.

“If, comprehensively, this district plan favors or disfavors a political party, it is unconstitutional,” he said.

The commission recessed after the 5-2 vote against the Democrats’ map, with just hours to go before the court-mandated midnight deadline.

The Ohio Supreme Court has invalidated two sets of Statehouse maps approved by the commission along party line votes supported only by Republicans. Most recently, it gave the commission until Thursday to approve a third set of maps.

LaRose, the state’s election chief and also a member of the redistricting panel, wrote to Huffman earlier this week to express his concern that the timeline is now too tight to run a smooth 2022 election.

The Republican pointed out that state lawmakers have the power to set the time and date of elections, stopping short of suggesting they do so — but offering his counsel.

“I simply ask that you consider the very real damage that can be done to voter confidence by running an election without the time needed to do it correctly,” he wrote. “To borrow a line from Shakespeare, it is better to proceed ‘wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.’”

By Julie Carr Smyth

Associated Press