Published Thu, Dec 15, 2011 5:24 am Dateline
Ohio's lawmakers stayed late into the night on the last legislative day of 2011 to approve a new congressional map, reunite the state's primaries and end months of
political wrangling over which party will control Ohio's congressional delegation that saw a voter lawsuit and a Democratic repeal effort.
The agreement reached Wednesday by lawmakers would repeal the current congressional lines, reunite the state's primaries to a single March date and establish a task force to makerecommendations for changes to the mapmaking process.
The Senate signed off on the bill with a 27-6 vote just an hour and a half after the House passed it 77-17. It made it out of the Republican-controlled legislature and on to Gov. John Kasich's desk with just enough Democratic support to avoid a repeal effort like the one facing the GOP-drawn map passed in September.
"The map that is presented here may not be an accurate reflection of the political sentiments and will of the people of the state of Ohio," said Senate Minority Leader Capri Cafaro, one of the few Democrats to vote for the measure. "But at least we have one primary. At least we're saving money. And at least we're putting this confusion behind us now."
The primaries were separated in October to give lawmakers more time to compromise on new congressional district boundaries after a Republican-drawn map was challenged by Democrats, who have been gathering signatures in an effort to ask voters to repeal it on next year's ballot.
Currently, Ohio's state, local and U.S. Senate primaries are planned for March, but the presidential and U.S. House primaries are scheduled to take place in June. Those candidates expecting the June primary have until Dec. 30 to file for office.
The agreement would settle concerns over Democrats' repeal efforts, and shift the primary to an earlier date to allow GOP voters to have a stronger say in the party's presidential nominee.
A second primary election day would cost taxpayers an additional $15 million.
Part of the bill would create an eight-member bipartisan commission with two Democrats and two Republicans from each chamber tasked with looking at changing the way the congressional map is drawn. The task force would hold at least three public hearings, one of which would take place after any proposal to change the
process is drafted.
Political scientists and redistricting experts have said that now, after a particularly ugly mapmaking cycle, the time is ripe to change the process, something echoed by lawmakers in Ohio's Statehouse.
"Ten years from now we don't have to keep going through a system that has more road bumps than road," said the Senate's second-highest ranking Republican, Sen. Keith Faber. "From that process I think we can all agree that the time to make changes in the redistricting process is when nobody knows what the outcome is
going to be, and that's 10 years from now."
The once-per-decade process of redrawing congressional maps comes after each census to reflect changes in population. Because of slow population growth compared with other parts of the country, Ohio is losing two of its 18 U.S. House seats.
By the time a new congressional map must be drawn in 10 years, neither party knows who will be in charge of the process.
Among key revisions, the new map would unify seven counties that were previously split, reduce splits in two counties from three to two and split one county that was previously whole. It also increases the black voting-age populations of urban districts in Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo.
Both maps would create 16 districts - 12 favoring Republicans and four favoring Democrats. The state is losing two congressional seats due to slow population growth.
The map passed by lawmakers on Wednesday was largely the same as one House Democrats blocked during a vote on Nov. 3. House Democratic Caucus spokeswoman Sarah Bender said it is an ugly map, but it came down to saving taxpayers $15 million by consolidating the primaries.
"It's time to turn our attention to refining this process," she said.
Earlier Wednesday, Karla Herron of the Ohio Association of Election Officials told a House panel that her organization endorses a single primary date. One date would eliminate voter confusion, alleviate any problems with preparing voting equipment twice, and keep officials from having to recruit poll workers for a second time.
The new map does contain "substantial" changes from the congressional map that lawmakers passed in September, said Lima Republican Rep. Matt Huffman, the map's House sponsor.
Much of the debate in both chambers referenced a report released Monday by a coalition of voter groups. The report by the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting revealed public records that indicated, among other things, that agents of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner had a key role in shaping the map and much of the mapmaking was done in a Columbus hotel room paid for by taxpayers to a tune of $91,000.
"Should we allow someone in Washington D.C. to come and direct how our districts will be drawn?" asked Youngstown Democratic Rep. Robert Hagan. He said he worried about what voters would think of the General Assembly passing a map that differed little from the one contested by Democrats and voter advocates.
"Maybe ... the joys of Christmas will overwhelm the fact that the real gift that we gave everybody was a slap in the face of democracy."