COLUMBUS — Republicans, Democrats and a coalition of redistricting reform advocates have reached a deal to put a proposal on the May ballot aimed at curtailing partisan gerrymandering of Ohio’s congressional map.
Following more negotiations this weekend, the Senate Government Oversight Committee this afternoon unanimously approved the compromise plan, and a full Senate vote is expected tonight. The House is likely to approve it on Tuesday, one day ahead of the Feb. 7 deadline to get the issue on the May ballot.
Unlike the current redistricting process, which requires no minority party support and has almost no rules other than requirements for district population and avoiding conflict with the federal Voting Rights Act, the proposal would initially require 50 percent of the minority party in each chamber to approve a map for 10 years. It also would limit how often counties can be split into multiple congressional seats.
If the legislature is unable to meet those voting thresholds, the process would be handed to a seven-member commission consisting of the governor, auditor, secretary of state and four lawmakers, where a 10-year map would require at least two minority-party votes.
If that fails, the process goes back to the legislature, where it would require a three-fifths vote in each chamber, including one-third of each minority caucus to pass a 10-year map.
If there’s still no deal, the majority can draw a four-year map on its own, but it would be under stricter criteria, including not being permitted to “unduly” split counties and other jurisdictions, draw a district that favors or disfavors a party, or draw districts that favor incumbents. That process also would require the majority to formally justify why it decided to draw each district, which advocates say would hold them accountable to the courts and the public.
Democrats and members of the Fair Districts = Fair Elections coalition, which has already collected about 200,000 of the 306,000 valid signatures of registered Ohio voters needed for a November redistricting ballot issue, have been locked in talks with majority Republicans for about two weeks.
If the majority moves forward on its own, “essentially the map-maker is going to say, ‘I can’t do something that a judge is going to say I didn’t have to do,’” said Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, a leader in crafting the plan.
Under the current map, drawn by Republicans in 2011, the GOP has held a firm grip on 12 of 16 congressional districts, even when they got less than 55 percent of the statewide congressional vote. The districts are heavily gerrymandered, largely non-competitive, and are meant to ensure Republicans control the bulk of the Ohio delegation.
The big issues holding up a deal were county splits, prohibiting the drawing of districts specifically to benefit one party over the other, and ensuring that the majority could not pass a map without bipartisan support.
“All parties worked really hard to get to this deal today,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council and a leader of the Fair Districts coalition. The key, she said, is a bipartisan process that prevents favoring one politician or party and keeps communities together.
“There are a lot of backstops to prevent bad behavior. We feel this compels the General Assembly to make good, fair decisions on behalf of the citizens of Ohio,” she said.
Sen. Bill Coley, R-Mason, chairman of the Senate Government Oversight Committee and an outspoken opponent of changing the current redistricting system, was replaced on Monday by Sen. Joe Uecker, R-Loveland. Coley reported was out of town and unable to make the hearing.
Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, said the agreement produces a number of positive changes to the current system.
“No one can draw a 10-year map without meaningful bipartisanship,” he said. “There are still concerns, but we can work those out. You can’t get everything you want, especially when you’re in the deep minority.”
At times, the talks appeared to fall apart, but both sides had motivation to continue.
Republicans are worried that the Fair Districts proposal not only would be successful, putting in place a process they oppose, but also would be used as a mechanism to drive Democratic turnout.
Meanwhile, the Fair Elections coalition is concerned that Republicans might spend big to defeat their issue in November, something they’ve done twice in years past, leaving the current partisan process in place with no changes.
In 2016, no congressional race in Ohio was closer than 18 points, and 14 of 16 races were decided by 30 points or more.
Democrats have not controlled a majority of Ohio’s congressional delegation since 2008, when a Democratic wave led by soon-to-be President Barack Obama helped give them a 10-8 advantage. But that quickly disappeared two years later, when Republicans won three seats and gained a 13-5 advantage.
Based on slow population growth, Ohio lost one congressional seat in 2011 and is expected to lose another one in 2021 when the map is drawn again.