COLUMBUS -- The Ohio Senate president says a ballot issue designed to overhaul the state’s partisan congressional redistricting process could be unveiled as early as next week.
The goal would be to get it on the May ballot. But some involved in the Fair Districts = Fair Elections coalition that has already been working toward a November redistricting ballot issue worry it might not go far enough.
Senate President Larry Obhof said substantial progress has been made on crafting a plan that, it appears, would still leave the primary responsibility of drawing the map in the hands of the legislature, while potentially utilizing a separate commission if lawmakers can’t work out a deal.
"I’m worried about making sure we have a process in place that actually makes sense and treats voters fairly, not whether it has an impact on who is going to be in Congress in 2024," Obhof said.
Using high-tech software, Republicans heavily gerrymandered the current map to give themselves 12 of the state’s 16 seats. Very few races have been competitive since the map was drawn.
Congressional redistricting reform follows the successful passage of state Issue 1 in 2015, which created a new process for drawing Ohio’s 99 House and 33 state Senate districts. At the time, GOP legislative leaders, pressed by then-U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, chose not to change the congressional map-making process.
Support for change has slowly, steadily grown inside the Statehouse. In addition to heightened national attention, including courts striking down gerrymandered maps in multiple states, lawmakers took notice when a coalition began collecting signatures for a November ballot issue that would reform the process and hand it to a separate commission.
Richard Gunther, Ohio State University political science professor emeritus, said his worst fear is that lawmakers make only cosmetic changes to Issue 1 and apply it to congressional districts.
Under Issue 1, Gunther said, there was no need to focus on protecting counties from being split, because it is unavoidable when drawing 99 districts.
But when drawing 16 congressional districts in 88 counties — likely to drop to 15 in 2021 — the need to limit county splits is far more vital, he said.
"If you don’t protect counties, then you’re allowing for the same cracking strategies that we already have," said Gunther, who has worked for years on redistricting issues, including Issue 1 and the ballot issue being pursued by the Fair Districts coalition.
Counties are split 54 times under the current congressional map, including four each in Cuyahoga and Summit counties, and three each in Franklin, Portage and Mercer counties.
The coalition’s proposal requires that a congressional district be drawn entirely inside of a county, if the county is big enough to support it — a possibility in Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton. No county could be split into more than two districts.
That, Gunther said, prevents the dilution of Democratic votes in urban counties, or stops efforts to use those votes to create additional Democratic districts.
Obhof said they are focused on drawing compact districts and getting bipartisan buy-in. The need to create congressional districts equal in population means the state can’t just use Issue 1 to draw those lines, he said.
"There is plenty of federal case law saying you don’t have any flexibility when drawing congressional maps, that essentially every district has to be the same size within a few people," Obhof said.
But Gunther disagrees, pointing to a 2012 case out of West Virginia, where the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 0.79 percent population variance, because the state showed the map was necessary to "achieve some legitimate state objective."
"I think the question really is, what can you do and still get the districts as close to exact as possible?" Obhof said.
Obhof said it has not been settled what type of legislative vote would be required to approve a map. Some suggestions have included a two-thirds super-majority vote, or more explicitly requiring some minority party votes.
"I think it’s important to have bipartisan buy-in," Obhof said.
To make the May ballot, the House and Senate must approve a plan by the Feb. 7 filing deadline.