COLUMBUS — A top Ohio Republican lawmaker hopes the state will have legal flexibility in the likely event that it blows its constitutional deadline later this year for redrawing its political maps.
Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican and an attorney, said he thinks a judge hearing any possible legal challenge to Ohio’s redistricting process would view the situation sympathetically, given the federal government’s announcement last week that it won’t release its final census data until Sept. 30.
An initial deadline for redrawing congressional maps under the Ohio Constitution falls on the same day, while a different initial deadline for redrawing state legislative maps falls on Sept. 1.
“It does demonstrate the problems of putting specifics in the Constitution,” Huffman said. “But I also think as a practical matter, there are lots of things in constitutions and laws that courts have to look at and interpret. So I think if we move forward in good faith and demonstrate that we’re doing that, then we’ll be fine.”
Jen Miller, executive director of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters called the situation a “legal gray zone.” But she said her organization’s biggest concern isn’t the deadlines, but that lawmakers not use the compressed timeline as an excuse for gerrymandering.
“Clearly it’s not ideal, and we are concerned about the timeline, but it will be not be an acceptable excuse for limiting public participation or creating partisan maps,” she said.
Through the redistricting process this year, Ohio lawmakers will divide the state into congressional and state legislative districts of roughly equal population. They will for the first time use redistricting processes, approved by Ohio voters in 2015 and 2018 through amendments to the state constitution, that were designed to create more competitive and politically representative political maps by requiring greater minority party input and limiting how lawmakers can split counties and cities.
Census data is key to the process, since Ohio’s districts must be of roughly equal population.
Both new redistricting processes lay out a series of specific legal deadlines. The first comes on Sept. 1, when the legislature must either pass a map for state legislative lines with bipartisan support, or if they fail, a state commission of elected officials must introduce a plan for consideration.
Another set of cascading deadlines for drawing congressional lines begins on Sept. 30, with a final deadline falling on Nov. 30. In the intervening days, Republicans who control state government must either get Democratic support for 10-year maps or by the final deadline, pass maps that will only be good for only four years, but which must meet a stricter set of legal rules meant to force fairer maps.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Attorney General Dave Yost, both Republicans, said on social media over the weekend that they were exploring legal options for forcing the federal government to provide the data sooner. Spokespeople for both said on Monday they had nothing new to share.
Legal deadlines aside, Huffman said the legislature for practical reasons needs to complete redistricting by the end of the year, so candidates will be ready for the 2022 primary election. While the date hasn’t been legally set, a March primary would have a December filing deadline under state law, while the filing deadline for a May primary would be in March.
“In theory, we could move the filing deadline up or we could move the primary,” Huffman said. “Some states have their primaries in June even. So those are all options.”
“As a practical matter, it probably means if we’re using the census data, that would prevent us from meeting the constitutional deadlines, but we can’t perform the impossible,” he said.
House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, an Akron Democrat, said the delay could interfere with efforts to recruit candidates, a dynamic she said will benefit incumbents in general.
“It certainly is not to the advantage of people who are not generally engaged in politics, because it takes quite a bit to ramp up a political campaign,” she said. “So it will be very discouraging to first-time candidates when you don’t know the boundaries of the district that will have the voters you’re trying to reach.”
Sykes, who likely will play a key role in negotiating maps, said she hopes Republicans won’t politically exploit the compressed timelines. She called on them to start preliminary hearings aimed at seeking public input on the new maps.
“I would hate for them to disrespect the voters by allowing this glitch, which we knew was going to happen starting with the Trump administration allowing this glitch to happen, to not give the voters what they said they wanted,” Sykes said.
Katy Shanahan with All on the Line Ohio, a local chapter of a national Democratic-aligned redistricting group, said her group will be pushing the legislature to hold public hearings.
She also said she will closely watch how the process plays out. One concern, she said, is the state constitution appears to technically permit the legislature to use “other data” if census data isn’t available. She said this might include census estimates or commercially available mapping data.
“I think right now we’re surveying the scene and trying to figure out what different paths are open to us,” Shanahan said. “Litigation is always an option that’s on the table.”