New U.S. House map talks go on while Ohio Supreme Court mulls state House, Senate plan

Freed for the moment from fears of being held in contempt of court, the Ohio Redistricting Commission will meet Tuesday afternoon to continue talking about a new map for Ohio’s U.S. House districts.

In their meeting notice, commissioners said they will hear presentations on maps newly submitted by the general public. At their previous two meetings they only allowed discussion of maps proposed prior to the commission’s November approval of a Republican map, which the Ohio Supreme Court has since overturned.

On Friday the commission sent the court official notice that it had passed a new state redistricting plan, one week after the court-ordered deadline.

The commission, with dissent from Democrats, announced itself at an impasse Feb. 18. Then, in response to the contempt hearing order, some reversed course and said they weren’t at an impasse – following that by passing new maps which they say are compliant after all.

In the notice of new maps, filed Friday on behalf of the commission, Attorney General Dave Yost asked the court to delay or cancel the contempt hearing. The notice says all commission members and staff “were included in the map-drawing process” this time, and that it would create the same number of swing districts as the Democratic plan the commission rejected Feb. 17.

But an attached minority report from state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, and House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington – the only Democratic members of the redistricting commission – argues the latest proposal actually has fewer likely Democratic districts than the maps the court overturned Feb. 7. No Republican-leaning districts have margins nearly as close as the razor-thin ones in many supposedly Democratic districts, the minority report says.

It also contradicts Yost’s filing, saying the new maps were drawn “entirely by Republican legislators on the Commission without our involvement and without allowing feedback or changes.”

The latest version of maps for new state House and Senate districts, drawn to account for 2020 census results, would likely create 54 Republican House seats and 18 Republican Senate seats, according to its sponsors. Currently Republicans hold 64 of the 99 Ohio House and 25 of the 33 Ohio Senate seats.

But of those, 19 House and seven Senate seats lean Democratic by less than 4%, while no Republican districts are that close, according to the tally mapmakers handed out.

Long road to new maps

On Feb. 7, the Supreme Court ordered the commission to file new state House and Senate district maps by Feb. 17. But the commission did not meet again until that last day, when Republicans voted unanimously to defeat the Democratic proposal without offering one of their own.

The court then gave until noon Feb. 23 for commissioners to explain why they shouldn’t be held in contempt. Commissioners filed various explanations, but the court scheduled a contempt hearing for Tuesday morning.

Thaddeus Hoffmeister, professor at the University of Dayton School of Law, said people should take note of the court’s threat to hold most of the state’s high officials in contempt.

“This is kind of precedent-setting. This is historical, really,” he said.

But Hoffmeister expected the threat would have an effect, since elected officials don’t want the stigma of that charge.

“The majority of Ohioans are against gerrymandering. They voted overwhelmingly to fix the lines,” he said. “Maybe for your core supporters it may benefit you, but for the average Ohioan, I think they want it fixed in some form or fashion.”

Contempt of court, especially at the supreme court level, is not a common charge, Hoffmeister said. It’s usually used against someone who refuses to testify.

“It’s rare, because most people will eventually acquiesce or cooperate with the court,” he said. “And it’s definitely rare that you would see it at the supreme court level and with the people that are involved here.”

Hoffmeister said he expected the court would consider the latest maps in lieu of a contempt hearing. He believes the court doesn’t really want to be involved, but wants to see commissioners do the job correctly.

On Feb. 24 commissioners reconvened and passed new maps. For the third time it was a Republican proposal. But in a first, Republicans broke ranks, with Auditor Keith Faber siding with Democrats to oppose the plan, which passed 4-3.

Faber said the latest maps had the same defects as the Democratic proposal that Republicans shot down Feb. 17: unnecessary splits of counties or communities, and “compromising compactness” to meet a specific partisan ratio of seats.

The day after the commission passed its third try at state House and Senate maps, the Supreme Court put the contempt hearing on hold, instead asking plaintiffs in the long-running challenge to the maps to file any further objections within three days.

Plaintiffs did just that on Monday.

The voting rights and progressive groups that have led legal challenges to the maps for months said in their latest objections that the new maps again have a disproportionate number of close Democratic districts and no similarly close Republican districts – the same grounds the court used to reject the previous maps Feb. 7.

An affidavit filed on plaintiff’s behalf by Christopher Warshaw, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, reiterates that assertion.

“The fact that all of the close seats are Democratic-leaning and none are Republican-leaning gives the Republican party a substantial advantage in the translation of votes to seats in Ohio,” Warshaw wrote.

Looming deadlines

On Friday, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose ordered the state’s 88 county boards of elections to use the latest state House and Senate maps for the May 3 primary, though those maps are still under court challenge.

LaRose, a redistricting commission member, cited a Feb. 24 letter from fellow commissioners Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, and House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, reiterating the General Assembly’s order to include legislative contests on the May 3 ballot. He also asked legislators for more election funding.

“The (Ohio) General Assembly is not interested in delaying this primary election,” LaRose said Monday following a business roundtable with the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce.

But the Ohio Association of Election Officials, in a letter Monday to Huffman and other legislative leaders, said though money would help what they really need is more time.

The state’s 88 county boards of election asked legislators to delay the May 3 primary for all offices. The group has previously said holding separate primary elections for different offices would be the worst option.

Election officials just got the latest maps on Saturday and still don’t have fine details of the new district lines, the letter says.

“Moreover, these maps are subject to further proceedings in the Ohio Supreme Court, the result of which likely will not be known until next week. Congressional maps are still being debated by the Commission and must be completed before election officials can begin our internal process of redrawing district lines and assigning voters to those districts,” the group wrote. “Given these facts, our ability to administer a fair and accurate election has been compromised.”

Although the congressional map remains unsettled, LaRose also instructed people who want to run for U.S. House seats that they can file for office in “the most populous county of the district they seek to represent.” The deadline to file for those seats is March 4.

“If the most populous county changes after passage of a new district plan by the Ohio Redistricting Commission, the board of elections where the candidate previously filed will transfer the filing documents to the new most populous county board of elections in the district,” LaRose’s order says.

He said he’s asking the U.S. Department of Defense for more time to send ballots to overseas soldiers and their families. At the commission’s Feb. 24 meeting, LaRose warned that those ballots had to be mailed by March 18.

Staff Writer Ed Richter contributed to this report

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