COLUMBUS — Battle lines were potentially drawn Wednesday over the inherently political process of redrawing congressional districts every 10 years as Ohio Republicans unveiled their plan that keeps lawmakers in charge.
That could set up a showdown with Democrats and a separate citizen initiative to put the process in the hands of an independent panel that might be headed for the November ballot.
State Sen. Matt Huffman (R., Lima) unveiled a proposal he hopes to get on the May primary election ballot that would give the General Assembly first shot at passing a map with super-majority votes that include one-third of the minority party.
If that fails, it would punt to a seven-member independent panel already approved by voters. If that panel fails to approve a map with at least two minority votes, the majority could proceed, but the resulting map would last just four years.
Lawmakers would get a chance to expand that map to 10 years with a simple majority that includes one-fifth of the minority party members.
“There’s going to be substantial input by the minority party in how this map is drawn ...” Mr. Huffman said. “Does it mean they can draw it? No. But you got to keep a substantial group of people happy on the other side.”
Both chambers face a Feb. 7 deadline to pass a resolution with three-fifths majorities if they want to put its proposal on the May ballot. Republicans hold large enough majorities in both chambers to do that themselves.
But it’s still full speed ahead for an existing citizen effort to put a competing constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot that would use the same basic infrastructure that voters already approved in 2015 for state legislative districts. That plan would use a seven-member commission and would require support from at least two minority members.
“They specifically neglected mentioning protecting the large counties. Gee, I wonder why that is,” said Richard Gunther of Ohioans for Fair Districts, a coalition of groups like the League of Women Voters of Ohio that is pursuing a fall ballot issue.
“Isn’t it perhaps interesting to note that Democrats tend to live in large urban areas, and, therefore, what you’re doing with this particular proposal is guaranteeing that the smaller rural counties will remain whole at the same time that you invite the promiscuous splitting of large urban counties?” he said. “That’s a recipe for gerrymandering.”
Currently, congressional maps are enacted each decade, following the latest U.S. Census, like any other bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor.
With the present map that took effect in 2012, Republicans hold 12 of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts despite the fact that the state’s partisan registration is nearly evenly split. Districts were redrawn to create four strongly Democratic districts in largely urban areas while the other 12 lean or are strongly Republican.
Things will likely be complicated in 2021 when Ohio is again expected to lose one of its districts because of its weak population growth.
Mr. Huffman, who played a large role in the current map, said the criteria in the newest proposal would prevent splitting more than once all but the 10 largest counties. That would prohibit another District 9 that now stretches along the Lake Erie shoreline from Toledo to Cleveland and has been dubbed by critics as the “snake on the lake.”
When possible, the goal would be to have at least one entire county in a district. Among other things, the resulting districts should be compact and consisting of contiguous territory.
Mr. Huffman insisted that lawmakers retain control over at least part of process, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that approved Arizona’s delegation of that authority to an outside panel. He said that doesn’t mean Ohio should follow suit.
The citizen effort needs roughly 306,000 valid signatures of registered voters by July 4 to have its proposal certified for the ballot. It claims 193,000 so far.
“There are words in our proposal saying that you cannot give partisan advantage to any candidate or any party,” said Ann Henkener, the League’s redistricting specialist. “Those are the kinds of things that I think are just absolutely mandatory to have in there and are certainly missing in anything we’ve seen today.”
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