Concerns Over Ohio’s New Redistricting Process: Is It Happening As Voters Intended?

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When the current lines were drawn for Ohio House and Senate and Congressional districts ten years ago, much of that work was done by a handful of Republican lawmakers behind closed doors. Since then, Ohioans have passed new rules for the redistricting process to make it more open and accountable. But there are, once again, questions about whether the bulk of the work is being done in secret.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission will draw lines for state lawmaker’s districts and has held one 7-minute meeting with all seven of its members when it convened for the first time earlier this month.

Since then, public meetings have taken place around the state but not all of the members of the commission have attended. For example, commission member Gov. Mike DeWine was spotted at a practice training for the Cincinnati Bengals Monday, but didn’t attend the meeting in Cincinnati Tuesday. So, he didn’t hear former Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper accusing majority Republicans on the committee of working, secretly, with their colleagues to construct a gerrymandered map in private.

“Hiding it under lock and key somewhere and scurrying round trying to keep everyone from knowing about it is just wrong,” Pepper said.

There have been no meetings about the Congressional map, which will be drawn by state lawmakers. And that map will have 15 districts. That means Ohio’s Congressional delegation of 12 Republicans and 4 Democrats will be smaller by one.

Republican Senate President Matt Huffman says the commission members are having discussions about the process. But says he is not aware of any Republicans who are drawing maps right now away from public scrutiny.

“Behind closed doors, I know that’s a metaphor, but you know, at some point, somebody has to do some work, and presumably that’s not on the Statehouse lawn,” Huffman said.

The meetings didn’t start till after the U.S. Census data that will be used to make the maps were delivered to the states. But at the commission’s hearing in Lima, Ohio League of Women Voters President Jen Miller was met with applause when she said hearings should have begun months ago.

“Instead the public has had no input on or insight into how the data has been cleaned, verified or presented. We’ve had no input on the partisan indexing which is a political decision and I would argue violates the letter and spirit of these reforms and possibly violates the letter of them. Well before the data was received, you should have been asking for input from the public and experts on how to define things like equal population, minority representation, representational fairness, and other issues,” Miller said.

Miller pointed out her group was ready to take redistricting straight to voters but, in the end, included lawmakers in the process and reminded them they have an obligation to be accountable to voters. Democratic Sen. Vernon Sykes says voters demanded that when they passed the new redistricting reforms as constitutional amendments in 2015 and 2018.

“They’re insisting on fairness and openness and I think it’s important for us to have more public discussion about what is going on. (applause) It’s extremely important. I don’t believe this should be handled like we do with the budget where the conference committee reports that comes out in just enough time to announce what the results are,” Sykes said.

Republican House Speaker Bob Cupp says he will continue to work with Democrats on the rules for the process. The amendment on maps for state lawmakers’ districts requires at least three public hearings and a vote on a map by Wednesday – a deadline that Cupp says could be hard to make.

“I think most of us are committed to having multiple hearings on maps regardless of whether the September 1st deadline can be met. As you know, the census data was to be available in April and was just available a week or so ago and so it makes it very difficult to sort of vet all of these rules and to have the things that you are asking for to be done in such a short order and that’s kind of what the complication here is,” Cupp said.

The Congressional map deadline is a little later – it’s September 30. And at least two public hearings would be required before lawmakers vote on that map.

But advocates for an open redistricting process say they want to make sure the state doesn’t end up with maps like the current ones, which have been described by national analysts as some of the most gerrymandered in the country. Again, David Pepper.

“This is a state that voted for the last ten years 55-45 Republican/Democrat. That means that you should have somewhere between 6-7, or in a good year, even 8 Democrats in Congress. If they draw a map that’s something like 12 Republicans and 3 Democrats or 13-2, the language in the constitution now should mean that map is struck down and thrown out,” Pepper said.

Going to court would not be out of the question, since it happened last time around. The maps were upheld. But that was before the new voter-approved redistricting reforms.