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To Get On Ohio Ballots, Redistricting Reform Needed 'A Minor Miracle'

Flyers for Issue 1, the successful 2018 ballot issue that created a new redistricting process.
Nick Castele
A stack of pro-Issue 1 pamphlets sit on a table at the Democratic gubernatorial debate in Cleveland Heights over the weekend.

Voters on May 8 have a chance to change the way Ohio draws Congressional maps. Issue 1 would require more bipartisanship in a line-drawing process that currently has few rules.

It’s not the first time a redistricting proposal has gone to the ballot. But Issue 1 has brought together Republicans, Democrats and several groups advocating for reform.

A Compromise Proposal

It takes a majority of the legislature to pass a map, and that means the party in power has a lot of say over how it looks. For decades, there have been attempts to shake up this process.

“Millions of dollars were spent on both sides, countless redistricting reformers were engaged in those efforts, and we came to naught,” said Catherine Turcer, the director of Common Cause Ohio, one of the groups supporting Issue 1.

Turcer hopes this year is different.

Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and other groups gathered petition signatures to put a new plan on the ballot. The state legislature drew up its own ideas. In February, the two sides negotiated a deal. For a time, Turcer said, it didn’t seem like they were going to agree.

“So I do feel like it’s a minor miracle that Democrats and Republicans came together and came up with redistricting reform,” she said.

How Redistricting Would Work

What they agreed to doesn’t dictate the party makeup of each district, but it does reconfigure the process for drawing the lines.

The next map would need three-fifths support in both the state House and Senate. And it has to be bipartisan, with at least half of the two major parties backing it.

If the general assembly can’t meet that bar by the end of September 2021, a seven-member redistricting commission has a chance to draw a bipartisan map.

If that commission can’t do it, the legislature gets another shot, with fewer requirements for bipartisanship. But if the legislature passes a map with a simple majority, and without support from both parties, it has to abide by more rules. For instance, the map can’t be drawn to unduly favor one party or its incumbents.

“There are no, currently, no guidelines or rules other than federal law or federal judicial decisions,” said Republican state Sen. Matt Huffman, who cosponsored the proposal in the legislature. “So this is an opportunity for Ohio to clarify the process.”

Credit Ohio Secretary of State

Huffman said the plan aims to keep communities together, too.

“There are restrictive rules in terms of how many times that counties and local jurisdictions can be divided, and we restrict the elongation of districts,” he said.

Districts must be compact, and 65 out of Ohio’s 88 counties can’t be split up.

Expert Sees A Strong Plan, But ACLU Neutral

Michael Li, the senior redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, said Ohio’s proposal is a strong one.

“It has stronger rules on what the legislature can do,” Li said. “It also requires bipartisan support, at least in the first two steps, to get a map passed.”

In other states, legislatures have resisted change, he said.

“Ohio has been unusual in the sense that the legislature is actually willing to entertain serious and meaningful reforms,” he said.

State Sen. Frank LaRose and state Rep. Kathleen Clyde, the Republican and Democrat running for Ohio Secretary of State, both voted to send the redistricting proposal to the ballot.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio decided to stay neutral on Issue 1. A press release from the ACLU said the proposal doesn’t go far enough.

Policy director Mike Brickner said there are things to like in the plan, such as rules against splitting up communities. Allowing a majority of the general assembly to pass a map when all else fails, however, was a hang-up for him.

“Really, the most effective ways to change the process is to have an independent commission, people who are not motivated by not retaining their political power,” Brickner said.

Catherine Turcer with Common Cause Ohio defended the compromise proposal, saying it’s “the way that we are most likely to mitigate the worst aspect of gerrymandering.”

But at the same time, Turcer said the campaign is still gathering signatures just in case Issue 1 fails, so redistricting reform could still come up again in a future election.