Ohio GOP running out clock on new U.S. House maps

Ohio Redistricting Commission members (l-r) House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, and Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, listen to a member of the public at the commission's Sept. 14, 2021 hearing as a staff member holds up a time-limit sign.
Caption
Ohio Redistricting Commission members (l-r) House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, and Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, listen to a member of the public at the commission's Sept. 14, 2021 hearing as a staff member holds up a time-limit sign.

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

The Ohio General Assembly missed a Sept. 30 deadline to create a new U.S. House of Representatives district map, without holding any public discussions. That threw the job back to the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

Now, with only a week to go before the commission’s Oct. 31 deadline, that body hasn’t held any hearings either — meaning map-drawing will revert to the General Assembly with a lower threshold for acceptability.

Democrats and voting rights groups are still calling for hearings, and have submitted their own map proposals. Republicans remain tight-lipped about the process, insisting that they’re taking it seriously but not offering any public meetings.

“Unless more evidence comes forward, I think we have to assume they will put forward a partisan map that benefits Republicans and just plan to do it again in four years,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. “In reality, there is not much political downside to taking this approach. Those who support Republicans will probably agree with any approach that benefits their party, while Democrats will be opposed regardless. In other words, it is hard to see how this upsets the current state of Ohio politics all that much.”

ExploreNew state House, Senate district maps only good for four years

Ohio must lose one of its 16 U.S. House districts, as required by 2020 census results. Each of the 15 new districts will contain about 780,000 people.

Gov. Mike DeWine, a commission member, indicated this week that he’s not involved in any effort to schedule redistricting hearings.

“Conversations are going on, but I don’t really have any comment on that today,” he said Thursday. “There’s a process that is set by law, and that process certainly should be followed.”

DeWine wouldn’t say whether he believed that’s happening, and deflected questions to House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, who co-chairs the commission; and Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, also a commission member.

Aaron Mulvey, deputy press secretary for the House Republican Majority and Cupp’s spokesperson, didn’t answer specific questions, instead providing the same one-line statement he offered to several news outlets: “As the Speaker said last week, this continues to be a priority for us. We still anticipate a hearing announcement in the near future.”

On Oct. 20, Huffman said he didn’t know when the commission would meet. Discussions of the Congressional map “ground to a halt” due to lawsuits over the previously approved state House and Senate district maps, he said.

Caption
Ohio State Legislators held at redistricting conference at Sinclair College Tuesday August 24, 2021. The redistricting commission is holding crowd-and - panel meetings all across the state. Jim Noelker/Staff

Ohio State Legislators held at redistricting conference at Sinclair College Tuesday August 24, 2021. The redistricting commission is holding crowd-and - panel meetings all across the state. Jim Noelker/Staff
Caption
Ohio State Legislators held at redistricting conference at Sinclair College Tuesday August 24, 2021. The redistricting commission is holding crowd-and - panel meetings all across the state. Jim Noelker/Staff

Although the commission held 18 public meetings around the state and received dozens of map proposals, it wound up approving the Senate Republican Caucus proposal on a 5-2 party-line vote at the last possible moment, midnight on Sept. 15. Due to its partisan nature, the map must be redone in four years instead of 10, as laid down in a 2015 state constitutional amendment. In addition, the state House and Senate maps already face three lawsuits which argue they are calculated to preserve a Republican supermajority in both houses regardless of the state’s actual political makeup.

All seven commission members gave depositions over the course of a week, with Huffman going last on Oct. 21, he said. But minutes later he said only one staffer in his office was working on a Congressional map, and that state House Republicans only had one staffer doing the same, as does Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

“I don’t have a proposal from my guy who does this,” Huffman said.

He said the Congressional mapmaking process has tighter rules for comparable district population than the state House and Senate maps had, and that makes drawing lines difficult.

“We don’t want another reason why some court will say that it’s unconstitutional or illegal,” Huffman said. In any case, he expects the Congressional maps will be litigated also.

Huffman said he was more optimistic that Democrats and Republicans could agree on a Congressional map than he was about the state district maps. If the process goes back to the General Assembly after Oct. 31, a 10-year map would only need a three-fifths majority with support from one-third of Democrats — three in the Senate and 12 in the House — to be valid.

“I think that’s easier to do to get a 10-year map than what we just went through with the commission,” Huffman said.

The new process for drawing those districts, established in 2018 via state constitutional amendment, says legislators must hold at least two public hearings before approving a map.

The General Assembly will have from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30 to ratify a map. If legislators can’t meet the 3/5 threshold with support from one-third of Democrats needed for a 10-year map, they can still pass a map by simple majority vote, but it would have to be redone in four years.

“The strategy is simple – enhance the GOP’s ability to maintain dominance in the Ohio congressional delegation,” Smith said. “This will be complicated a bit by the fact Ohio lost a congressional seat, which might make for a hard decision or two, but the basic goal is the same.

“It is possible we will get a map that shows some compromise and the impending deadline will help that process, but this seems unlikely given what we saw with the state House and Senate maps,” he said.

The redistricting commission has received more than 60 Congressional map proposals from the general public and various organizations, according to the commission’s website.

ExploreTake a look at maps already submitted for new U.S. House districts

Ohio Senate Democrats released their map proposal as Senate Bill 237, with Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, and Sen. Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights, as primary sponsors. Fair Districts Ohio and the Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission also released maps.

All three would create seven districts that lean Democratic and eight that lean Republican, which aligns fairly closely with the state’s overall partisan split. Ohioans voted 53% Republican and 45% Democratic in the 2020 presidential election.

Ohio’s current U.S. House delegation contains three Democrats and 11 Republicans, with two vacant seats to be decided in the general election Nov. 2. The 11th District was previously held by a Democrat and the 15th District by a Republican.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission includes DeWine, LaRose, Auditor Keith Faber, Cupp, Huffman, Sen. Vernon Sykes, and House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron. Co-chairs Cupp and Vernon Sykes must both agree to convene a meeting.

Sen. Sykes sent letters to Cupp on Oct. 5 and again on Oct. 18 urging him to schedule a redistricting meeting, said Giulia Cambieri, communications director for the Ohio Senate Democratic Caucus. Sen. Sykes also called Cupp between those dates to urge the same, she said.

“These meetings are essential, particularly because we promised the public they would have the opportunity to testify on congressional redistricting before the commission,” Sen. Sykes wrote Oct. 18.

He asked for Cupp’s input on the Senate Democratic plan.

“Lastly, I look forward to the majority releasing a plan for consideration by the commission and public,” Sen. Sykes wrote.

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