GOP congressional redistricting plan faces criticism

By Jim Siegel - The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS — Senate Republicans unveiled a new congressional redistricting plan on Wednesday designed to limit partisan gerrymandering and get minority party support for a map to take effect for 10 years.

But leaders of the Fair Districts = Fair Elections coalition that is pursuing a separate proposal for Ohio’s November ballot, immediately threw sharp criticism at the plan, arguing it would do little to stop gerrymandering and could make the map worse.

“It would easily be possible to construct a 12-3 Republican map using these rules,” said Richard Gunther, Ohio State University political science professor emeritus, who has worked with the Fair Districts coalition.

“This would enshrine rules that are extremely unfair that would perpetuate one-party domination of our congressional delegation.”

Legislative Democrats also said they are not on board with the plan.

Unlike the current process, which allows the majority party to gerrymander a congressional map to its benefit, the proposal, outlined by Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, during testimony before the Senate Government Oversight Committee, would require minority party support to approve a map that lasts a full 10 years, until the next Census.

The proposal follows both public and closed-door meetings of a four-member bipartisan legislative panel tasked with coming up with a redistricting plan for the May ballot.

Legislative Republicans, who deliberately avoided changing the congressional map-making process when it revamped the legislative process in 2015, began to show more interest about a year ago, particularly as a coalition of organizations including the League of Women Voters of Ohio began seriously pursuing its own proposal for the November ballot.

Tuesday’s first public debate among Ohio lawmakers over congressional redistricting reform comes one day after a federal court ordered the North Carolina’s legislature to immediately redraw its congressional map, finding it was drawn to ensure Republican “domination of the state’s congressional delegation.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering two other gerrymandering cases out of Wisconsin and Maryland.

Republicans have controlled 12 of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts since redrawing the map in 2011, and few races have been competitive.

The redistricting proposal contains two key components - how a map is approved, and what rules are used to draw the lines.

Under the proposal, which is expected to be drafted into legislation by early next week, the House and Senate would retain control of the map-making process, but approving a map would take a three-fifths vote in each chamber, including one third of minority party members.

“It means there is going to be substantial influence by the minority party on how this map is drawn,” Huffman said. “Does that mean they get to draw it? No.”

Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, said the one-third threshold for Democratic support is a deliberate effort to try to peel off black lawmakers to support a map.

“It divides the minority party along racial lines,” Sykes said. “It’s distasteful. It’s been used in the past to pack districts so minority candidates might be more probable to win, but that’s not in the best interest, necessarily, of the total population.”

Under the plan, if lawmakers fail to get the necessary level of bipartisan support, then the process moves to a seven-member redistricting commission, where it would require four votes, including two minority party members, to approve a 10-year map.

If the commission cannot reach agreement, then the majority on the commission can approve a map, but it takes effect for only four years - a process mirroring what was approved in 2015 for legislative districts. The motivation not to do that, Huffman said, is to avoid the chaos that would come with having to change the map so soon.

“When people don’t know what the future is…that is what drives people to compromise,” he said.

If the majority of the commission approves a map without minority votes, the legislature gets one final stab at making it a 10-year map. That would require a majority vote in each chamber, including one-fifth of the minority party. Again, if that fails, the map takes effect for four years.

Huffman’s proposed rules for drawing new congressional districts differ from those proposed by the Fair Districts coalition, which calls for more stringent limits on splitting counties.

Huffman said that under his plan, rural counties could not be split more than once, but the 10 most populous counties in the state could see multiple splits. That drew criticism from Gunther and others.

“Gee, I wonder why that is,” Gunther said. “Isn’t it perhaps interesting to note that Democrats tend to live in large, urban areas and therefore, what you’re doing with this proposal, is guaranteeing smaller, rural counties be kept whole, at the same time you invite the promiscuous splitting of large urban counties. That’s a recipe for gerrymandering.”

Huffman said there also is still discussion of limiting splits within counties, such as keeping whole the state’s largest cities.

Under the proposal, a congressional district within a county must be contiguous - meaning, for example, the 12th District in Franklin County would no longer be legal.

The proposal also would prohibit multiple splits of counties to elongate districts, which would not make possible some of the geographical nonsense created in norther Ohio under the current map, including a “snake along the lake” district stretching from Toledo to Cleveland.

As he went through the rules, Huffman pointed out that they would invalidate a number of districts drawn in 2011.

But Ann Henkener, redistricting specialist for the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said that’s not enough, and the coalition is going to continue to collect signatures for a November ballot issue.

“Making some technical changes to try to solve some of the criticisms of the current map really does not address the next map,” she said.

Henkener and Gunther said a key omission in Huffman’s plan is that it fails to say districts cannot be drawn for partisan advantage, nor does it address “representational fairness,” where lines are drawn so the partisan breakdown of districts in a given year generally reflects the total state vote.

Huffman countered that, for the first time, his plan would enshrine minority party influence into the Constitution. He said the concept of “representational fairness” has been defined in a variety of ways, but it appears that supporters want to draw districts based on party affiliation.

“It is truly drawing districts based solely on political party. It is the definition of partisan gerrymandering,” Huffman said.

The Fair Districts coalition says it has collected 193,000 internally verified signatures. The group needs about 306,000 to qualify for the November ballot.

To get a legislative proposal on the May ballot would require a three-fifths vote in each chamber by Feb. 7. While the goal is a bipartisan plan, Republicans have majorities large enough to approve a plan without Democratic votes.

Huffman said he wants to see the Senate vote by Jan. 24, to give the House time to review it before voting. Formal committee hearings are expected to start next week.

By Jim Siegel

The Columbus Dispatch

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