COLUMBUS, Ohio — The biggest political battle isn’t fought every four years over who will be president — it’s waged every 10 years when politicians re-draw state legislative and congressional district maps that carve out which party will hold the upper hand when it comes to making decisions over taxes, guns, health care, education and more.
“It’s going to be one of the biggest things that happens because it will determine the balance of political power over the coming decade. It will determine whether there are fair opportunities for communities of color, it will determine whether maps are drawn to skew in favor of one party or the other,” said Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Redistricting in each state follows each decennial U.S. Census. Typically, the party that controls the map-drawing process holds a huge advantage.
But it’s supposed to be different this time around.
Ohio voters approved a new process for state legislative maps in November 2015 and a new process for congressional maps in May 2018. Each calls for more buy-in from the minority party, public participation, and a push for compact districts that keep communities together.
Republicans controlled the map making in 1991, 2001 and 2011 when they held a majority of seats on the old, five-member Ohio Reapportionment Board, which drew Statehouse districts. The Ohio Legislature, in turn, approved Congressional district lines.
District lines have favored the GOP over the past 30 years. Over the past 10 years, no Congressional district has flipped, giving Republicans control of 12 seats and Democrats control of four — despite a more balanced electorate in Ohio.
The new voter-approved processes put up guard rails that might help avoid highly partisan districts lines that squiggle across the state and get nicknames like the “snake on the lake” or “the duck.”
Before the map making even starts, Ohio faces challenges.
• Ohio’s population growth rate lags other states, such as Texas and Florida. As a result, Ohio is expected to lose one of its 16 seats in Congress.
• The state constitutional amendments set September deadlines for adopting the maps. But the U.S. Census announced in February that data used to redistrict will not be delivered to states until Sept. 30.
Voter rights groups are worried that the delay may be used as an excuse to curtail the time allowed for public participation or legal challenges to proposed maps.
“It is our expectation that this delay will not be used to limit transparency and public participation,” said Jen Miller, director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed suit against the Census seeking to force data delivery by March 31, as required by law. “Laws cannot be arbitrarily changed by administrative fiat,” Yost said in a written statement. “Even if it’s inconvenient, the Census Bureau must do its job.”
Several digital tools now let voters see how districts could be crafted.
Katy Shanahan, Ohio director of All on the Line, said lawmakers should take action now, such as allocating funds to buy software and laptops, make the legislative appointees to the Ohio Redistricting Commission, kick off a public awareness campaign and establish a way for Ohioans to submit proposed maps for consideration.
“There is a lot of work to be done that doesn’t rely on the census data,” she said.
Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said he expects funding for mapping software and staff will be included in the state budget, which is due to be approved by June 30. And he agrees that some of the preliminary work, such as public hearings, can start before the census data is delivered.
In November 2015, Ohio voters approved a new system for state legislative maps that calls for:
• Placing power in the hands of a seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission consisting of the governor, auditor, secretary of state and four legislative appointees, including two from the minority party.
• Holding public hearings and adopting a map by Sept. 15, with support from at least four of the seven commissioners, including both minority party members.
• Requiring that the districts are contiguous and compact and follow county, city and township boundaries and limit splits of counties. — If the commission fails to get two Democrats to support the map, four members may adopt a temporary, four-year map and reconvene to agree on another map for the remaining six years.
In May 2018, Ohio voters approved a system for congressional maps that calls for:
• Involving the Ohio Redistricting Commission but giving primary responsibility to the Ohio General Assembly.
• Setting a deadline of Sept. 30 for adoption of a 10-year map.
• Holding public hearings and allowing the public to submit maps.
• Requiring contiguous, compact districts that limit splits of counties and large cities.
• Requiring 60 votes in the House and 20 votes in the Senate, including at least 50% support from the minority party members in each chamber.
• If the Legislature fails, the duty moves to the Ohio Redistricting Commission to adopt a map by Oct. 31 with at least four commissioners, including both minority party members. — If the commission fails, the duty returns to the Ohio Legislature, but the threshold for minority party support falls from 50% to 33%.
And if those steps fail, a simple majority of the Legislature can adopt a four-year map and later adopt a six-year map.
The new system is designed to deliver more compact maps that have more support from the minority party — currently the Democrats. Nonetheless, politics will no doubt be in play.
But Huffman said the new rules will mitigate some of those forces. More important than the exact contours of a district map is whether a candidate raises money, has a good organization and national waves favor his or her party, he said.
“The candidates and officeholders put way too much stock into whether they got this little piece or that little piece,” he said.