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2011 Fights Over Elections And Redistricting Continue Into 2012

This year, the Ohio legislature approved changes to Ohio elections law and remapped districts for state and federal offices. Next year, voters will have the final say on both. Earlier this year, the Ohio House and Senate passed an election reform package that reduced the number of early in-person voting days, established online voter registration, and changed the rules for casting ballots. To say the measure was controversial is an understatement. Democrats like State Senator Shirley Smith said it was unnecessary and would disenfranchise poor and African American voters. "It’s just plain dumb," Smith said. "And it’s counterproductive, especially for a people that were asked to know how many bubbles were in a bar of soap before they could vote. Especially for a people who witnessed family members dying to have the opportunity to vote. Especially for a people who were asked to pass literacy tests before they could vote." One proposal that was not part of the reform package passed by the legislature would have required voters to show a valid driver’s license or government-issued state ID. That plan passed the House but was never brought up for a vote in the Senate. But even with that controversial measure taken off the table, Democrats like State Representative Bob Hagan were furious, claiming this new election reform plan was politically motivated. "Why don’t you just try to be honest and just talk about the fact that you are worried about the next election, and you’re worried about making sure fewer and fewer Democrats go to the polls? That’s what it is," said Hagan. But Republicans who backed the election reform package adamantly denied political motivations. The sponsor of the bill in the Ohio House, former Republican State Representative Bob Mechlenborg, said this bill was designed to do one thing. "Get rid of the issues before the voter comes on Election day and this bill is designed to do that." Republican backers of the election reform plan said the bill would level the playing field among all of Ohio’s 88 counties by making all of them play by the same rules. But Democrats, who argued voters in large counties had different needs than those in small counties, were so opposed to the election reform bill that they mounted an effort to put it on the ballot. And they were successful in getting gathering signatures: in the November election, Ohio voters will decide whether to keep the new election changes in place. Democrats started another referendum effort this year to try to repeal a new congressional district map. In mid December, majority Republicans, and some Democrats, passed a controversial new map of Ohio’s congressional districts. Other Democrats, though, were unhappy about the map but wanted to end the dispute. They started gathering signatures for a possible repeal but stopped in the signature gathering phase. By passing the map, the congressional and legislative primaries would be moved to "Super Tuesday" in March. During debate over the map, the Republican-led legislature established two primaries to accommodate filing deadlines. Election board officials around the state didn’t like that prospect because it would be confusing and would cost the state an extra $15 million. So when the chance came to pass legislation to, once again, put both primaries on the same day, Republican State Representative Matt Huffman was all for it. "Maybe it’s a little bit of a Christmas gift to folks in the State of Ohio," Huffman said. While the fight over the maps subsided, the fight over redistricting did not. Jim Slagle, the head of a group that’s been fighting for a non partisan redistricting process, released a report late in the year that showed politics was the driving factor in decisions made during the redistricting process. And he said that needs to change. "I think there’s been a long time effort to keep this secret, to do it in the back rooms," Slagle said. "It’s been done by the Republicans. It’s been done by the Democrats. It’s been done in the current cycle by Democrats in states where they are in control of the process. So it’s a systemic problem which goes back to why we should reform the process and change the constitution. Slagle ended the year by announcing a petition drive to put an issue onto the ballot to change the redistricting process and change the current maps in a couple of years. Meanwhile, State leaders are gearing up for a fight at the ballot box in November over how elections should be conducted in Ohio in the future.