An Ohio plan to reform the way political parties maintain control through gerrymandered congressional redistricting is taking criticism for not addressing the hyperpartisanship already rife in the map-making process.
State Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, introduced Senate Joint Resolution 5 this week. Republican leaders are pushing the plan for a public vote in the May primary election. Huffman said he’s open to amendments. But he and party leadership are rejecting calls to include language that would speak directly to partisan voting, and how lumping or splitting voters based on how they’ve voted previously is used to maximize one-party electoral success.
Even if the Ohio House and Senate vote by early February to put Huffman’s plan on the May ballot, a coalition of good-government groups called Fair Districts = Fair Elections is moving forward with its own constitutional rewrite, one that diminishes the role of legislators in the political map-drawing process. This citizen-sponsored plan, still short about a third of the signatures needed with months left to collect them, would appear on the November ballot per state law.
Huffman’s plan was previewed last week in a presentation by Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Jackson Township. The two Republicans joined Democrats Rep. Jack Cera of Bellaire and Sen. Vernon Sykes of Akron on a working group that’s been discussion redistricting reform since September. A message seeking comment was left with Sykes.
Democrats on the working group did not participate in drafting Senate Joint Resolution 5. Others in the House say no Democrat supports the plan. Sykes and Cera were noticeably absent when Schuring pitched the one-party proposal last week.
“I think the intention was good,” House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger said of Schuring’s soft rollout of the plan, which is being billed as open to tweaking.
Status quo in Summit
Huffman’s plan allows Ohio’s 10 most populous counties to be carved into at least four congressional districts.
Summit County already is. Home to the 11th, 13th, 14th and 16th U.S. House districts, Summit County has a quarter of Ohio’s congressional seats. That’s because the county’s congressional districts are stretched and twisted in a way that packs Democrats from Akron with others in Youngstown and Cleveland, and suburban Republicans with others from Wooster to Ashtabula.
Huffman’s plan does not prevent this from happening.
The Fair Districts = Fair Elections plan — endorsed by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause Ohio and 32 other groups, and modeled after what 71.5 percent of voters approved in 2015 for drawing state legislative districts — says “where feasible, no county shall be split more than once.”
Huffman told the Columbus Dispatch that “the problem is, you can’t draw a map under those rules,” pointing specifically to the densely populated region of Northeast Ohio.
“That is absolutely not true,” Ohio State Professor Emeritus Richard Gunther told the paper. Gunther, an architect of Issue 1 in 2015, is a proponent of applying the same principles to congressional map drawing.
Whereas Huffman’s plan addresses the shape of congressional districts, with an emphasis on compactness, the citizen initiative calls out partisanship, by name.
If passed in November, the Fair Districts = Fair Elections campaign plan would propose that congressional maps “maximize representational fairness by adopting a plan whose statewide proportion of districts most closely corresponds to the partisan preferences of the voters of Ohio as measured by the statewide proportion of votes in state and federal partisan statewide general election results during the previous 10 years.”
In short, in a state that has elected Democrats and Republicans to the White House and U.S. Senate, 16 congressional seats (or 15 should Ohio population falter on the 2020 census) should not be drawn to favor a supermajority by any one party, as Republicans have today with two-thirds of the seats.
Whichever plan is successful this year will govern the map-making in 2021, following the 2020 census.
Senate Joint Resolution 5, according to the nonpartisan Ohio Legislative Service Commission, does not prevent the ruling party from ramming through a map with no support from the minority party. The current Republican plan does, however, encourage bipartisan cooperation.
In a three-step process, the legislature must get some minority party members to approve a map. If that fails, a commission appointed by elected leaders of both parties would draft a new map. That version, again, would need some minority support to become the official map for the next 10 years.
Should bipartisanship fail, the commission says a “simple majority vote” will make the map permanent for four years. After two federal elections, the process repeats. In the event of a second round of partisan disagreements, a simple majority vote would cement the map for six years until the whole process begins anew in 2031.