Push is on for Ohio redistricting


Andrew J. Tobias - cleveland.com



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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Voting-rights advocates say Ohio officials don’t need to wait for the U.S. Census’ delayed results in order to get the ball rolling on the state’s process of drawing new political maps.

In a Monday letter to Gov. Mike DeWine, state legislative leaders and other state officials involved in redistricting, the advocates with Common Cause Ohio and the League of Women Voters said there’s work that can be done now, including picking which state legislators will sit on the state commission that likely will approve the political maps, and setting up a website for the public to learn about the process and submit suggestions.

“To avoid shenanigans, we need to make sure this process is as public as possible, so there is engagement built with both the public and the experts,” Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said during a virtual news conference on Monday.

This year, Ohio for the first time will use the overhauled redistricting processes approved by voters in 2015 and 2018 that were meant to end gerrymandering and result in fairer political maps. The new system, amended into the state constitution, is designed to require greater input from the minority party and reduce the number of times counties and cities can be split into different districts, among other changes.

But the state’s redistricting process will be set back, due to the delay in completing the U.S. Census, which the agency has said won’t be done until Sept. 30, six months past a federal legal deadline, partially because of the coronavirus pandemic. Legislators use the Census data as the backbone of redistricting, since state legislative and congressional maps are divided based on population, voting history and other demographic information.

The delay creates a legal gray area for Ohio, since the first of a series of state redistricting deadlines is on Sept. 1, while another key deadline is on Sept. 30, possibly the same day the complete Census results will be released. State officials have said they expect to have legal flexibility because of the delay in the Census results, and activists have indicated they won’t sue to strictly enforce the deadlines.

The advocates also said lawmakers also should consider setting the 2022 primary for June, instead of May as is currently planned, to give more time for public-input and map drawing. Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, previously has said a June primary is one option the legislature could consider.

And, the advocates said legislators should give local boards of elections extra money to educate the public over the new districts, and release funding for Republican and Democratic state legislative leaders to help them prepare for redistricting.

They said state legislative leaders shouldn’t use an alternate data set, like the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which is based on estimates, to plug in population figures for redistricting, even though Ohio’s constitution allows for it.

A federal judge, while dismissing Attorney General Dave Yost’s lawsuit that sought to force Census officials to release the data on time, last month cited the alternative data provision as evidence that Ohio had other options to the 2020 Census.

Yost has appealed the dismissal, and filings in the appellate case are due by April 16.

“I would just say in a situation like this, where other sources of data are going to clearly lead to an inferior result and end up undermining important democratic interests and potentially undermining voting rights as well, that is not a path that clearly has to be taken,” said Jessie Hill, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University who spoke at a news conference with the voting-rights groups.

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Andrew J. Tobias

cleveland.com

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