Work starts on new U.S. House map, with hints of progress on state legislative maps

House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima (center left) and state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron (center right) talk to reporters after the Ohio Redistricting Commission meeting Feb. 22, 2022.

Credit: Jim Gaines

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House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima (center left) and state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron (center right) talk to reporters after the Ohio Redistricting Commission meeting Feb. 22, 2022.

Credit: Jim Gaines

The Ohio Redistricting Commission took its first steps toward drawing a new map of Ohio’s U.S. House districts Tuesday, while tiptoeing around its looming confrontation with the Ohio Supreme Court over state House and Senate district maps.

House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, commission co-chair, said the commission was addressing the congressional map for the first time.

“The co-chairs will be working together to schedule public hearings on congressional redistricting,” he said, referring to himself and state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron.

Sykes said individuals and groups that submitted map proposals during the commission’s previous months-long deliberations would be invited to discuss those plans.

“It will be a limited public hearing, to those who have submitted maps,” he said.

In line with 2020 census results, Ohio must lose one of its 16 U.S. House districts. Legislators passed a new 15-district map in November, but on Jan. 14 the court struck it down as unfairly gerrymandered to favor Republicans. The court made has also separately ruled twice against new Ohio state legislative maps on the same grounds. All of those maps were Republican proposals approved without any Democratic support.

In Congress, Ohio is represented by 12 Republican and four Democrats. The overturned map would have likely created 11 Republican seats and four Democratic ones. In their 4-3 ruling, justices said the map’s partisan breakdown should more closely resemble the way Ohioans have recently voted in statewide elections, which is about 54% Republican to 46% Democratic.

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The U.S. House map was approved by the General Assembly, but by failing to approve a new version by Feb. 13, legislators threw the task back to the redistricting commission.

Not only did that give the commission another 30 days to settle on a map, Cupp said, but a plan approved by commissioners – and deemed acceptable by the state supreme court – could go into effect immediately. That would be in time for the May 3 primary election, but a plan approved by less than two-thirds of the General Assembly would not go into effect for 90 days. Cupp has previously said he didn’t think he could get the two-thirds majority needed for emergency implementation.

On Feb. 18, the court ordered the redistricting commission to file a response by noon Wednesday “showing cause as to why the commission and its members should not be found in contempt.” The issue is over why the commission’s members did not meet the court’s Feb. 17 deadline to approve new state House and Senate maps that meet state constitutional standards and fairly reflect Ohioans’ overall voting preferences.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission, established by the 2015 constitutional amendment that sought to reduce partisan gerrymandering, consists of Cupp, Sykes, Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima; House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington; Gov. Mike DeWine; Auditor Keith Faber and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Republicans outnumber Democrats on the commission 5-2.

Commission members did not say directly what, if any, response they plan to submit. But on Tuesday DeWine repeated what he said at the commission’s Feb. 17 meeting, after Republicans rejected a Democratic proposal for state House and Senate maps and failed to submit one of their own.

“We have an obligation to follow the constitution, we have an obligation to follow the court orders and finally we have an obligation to produce a map,” he said.

Faber moved to reconvene the commission at 4 p.m. Wednesday and 9 a.m. Thursday.

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Cupp said Wednesday’s meeting would have a dual purpose: a public hearing for a new U.S. House map, and a progress report on new state House and Senate maps.

Faber indicated that maps submitted by one of the plaintiffs who challenged the commission’s earlier efforts may be used as a template for the upcoming discussion. Justices specifically referred in their majority opinion to a map proposal by Jonathan Rodden, a professor of political science at Stanford University, as coming close to what they were looking for.

Faber said Rodden’s plan would likely produce 56 Republican and 43 Democratic seats in the state House. It would probably result in 18 Republican and 15 Democratic seats in the state Senate.

Currently Republicans hold 64 of the 99 House seats and 25 of the 33 Senate seats.

The maps overturned Feb. 7 would give Republicans the advantage in 57 House and 20 Senate districts, but 12 of the proposed Democratic-leaning House and four of the Senate districts would favor Democrats by razor-thin margins, while none of the Republican-leaning seats would be so close.

Russo said Democrats and their legislative staff have still not been been included in any talks on new state legislative maps, and asked for Republican cooperation.

Following the meeting, Sykes said to reach a consensus that would pass court muster, new maps had to have input from all parties.

“It should be a commission plan,” he said.

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