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Commentary: Mike DeWine's epiphany on redistricting reform likely won't change a thing

mike dewine walks on a stage with the seal of ohio in the background
David Richard
FR25496 AP
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine walks on a stage before speaking at a press conference, Thursday, June 2, 2022, in Avon Lake, Ohio.

Mike DeWine, enemy of partisan gerrymandering, fearless leader in the battle for fair state legislative and congressional districts in Ohio!

Sound like anybody you know?

Didn't think so.

Especially after Ohio's Republican governor spent 2022 as a member of the GOP majority on the Ohio Redistricting Commission which came up with no less than seven redistricting plans, each and every one of which was rejected by a majority of the Ohio Supreme Court as being unconstitutional.

DeWine voted for every one of those plans; and he helped the GOP leadership of the Ohio General Assembly kick the can down the road until they could get past the November 2022 election for the Ohio Supreme Court.

The result of that election was an Ohio Supreme Court that will give the legislature and the commission whatever it wants, when it wants it.

RELATED: A timeline of Ohio's redistricting saga

That's why it was astounding to a lot of people in Ohio politics when DeWine went before the Toledo Blade's editorial board last week and said he would be in favor of a new method of redistricting that would take elected officials — like himself — completely out of the process.

He told the Blade's editorial board that what happened in 2022 with redistricting proved that the current redistricting process, approved by Ohio voters in 2015 and 2018, is broken and needs to be replaced.

And exactly who broke that system, governor?

The end result of the two congressional district plans rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court is that last fall's congressional elections in Ohio used a map that had already been found to be unconstitutional.

DeWine explained the reasoning behind his sudden epiphany on redistricting to the editorial board.

"Taking it out of the hands, frankly, of elected officials is probably a good idea," DeWine said. "How we do that, though, to make sure it is done in an impartial way, is a difficult challenge."

David Niven, political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, said DeWine's position is hard to understand.

"It’s like he has a good angel on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other," Niven said. "The good angel didn't have much to say last year. Now it's saying, 'I'll be for this if my unspecified demands are met.'

"I wonder why he is bothering," Niven added. "He's won his second term. He won't be running for anything again. Why even pretend to be reasonable on this subject?"

DeWine didn't offer any details on what a new redistricting plan would look like or what role he would be willing to play, if any, in the process, of putting together a constitutional amendment and getting it on the ballot.

Dan Tierney, DeWine's press secretary, told WVXU redistricting was a subject raised by the editorial board, not the governor.

"Whether something could be agreed on is the key question," Tierney said. "The previous system did not yield compromise from the Democrats, and numerous nominally nonpartisan groups advocated for maps that were ostensibly pro-Democrat gerrymanders.

"The governor considers non-partisan to be actually non-partisan, not some of what we saw this past cycle from nonpartisan groups advocating for partisan results," Tierney said.

ANALYSIS: How the GOP turned Ohio's redistricting process upside down

If DeWine were to roll up his sleeves and help with the grunt work of getting a new system in place, he'd have to get involved with what his press secretary described as "nonpartisan groups advocating for partisan results."

Groups like the League of Women Voters Ohio, the Ohio ACLU, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and other voter rights groups — all who intervened in the Ohio Supreme Court's reviews of the GOP maps.

And they are the same groups who will organize a constitutional amendment to replace the present one — the plan they believe was deliberately sabotaged by Republican elected officials, including DeWine.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'conner in a black robe with her hands folded in front of her.
Ohio Channel

Last year, Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, a Republican, voted with the Ohio Supreme Court's three Democrats to reject the Republican maps.

She couldn’t run for re-election last year because of Ohio's judicial age limits law, but she says now she is working with voting rights groups to get a "politician-free" plan on the ballot in 2024.

O'Connor will be in the trenches of that effort. Whether or not DeWine will be remains to seen.

DeWine apparently wants Republicans to have a say in working out a new system, just as former Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman helped craft the 2015 and 2018 constitutional amendments, working alongside Democrats and voting rights advocates.

As it turned out, Huffman, a member of the Ohio Redistricting Commission, was principally responsible for the parade of maps the commission submitted last year — maps they had to know would be rejected as unconstitutional.

Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters Ohio, said she is glad to see DeWine and O'Connor on the side of taking elected officials out of the process of drawing maps.

"It's just too tempting for elected officials to rig maps," Miller said. "Politicians are just too tempted to use the process to help them and their friends."

There are many states who have already taken redistricting out of the hands of elected officials, including Michigan, Arizona, Iowa, Colorado and California, among others.

What Michigan got right

Ohio State football fans have no use for Michigan, or "Xichigan" as they like to spell it.

But "Xichigan" could teach the Buckeye State a thing or two when it comes to drawing legislative districts lines.

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is made up of Democrats, Republicans and non-partisan voters. They welcome input from the public; they steer clear of elected officials and the political parties themselves.

"Michigan is a very good example of a state that has figured this out," Miller said.

Miller said it is "going to take some time" to put together a specific plan that could go on the ballot in Ohio. It takes a lot of time, much negotiating and a boatload of money to run a statewide campaign.

ANALYSIS: Maureen O'Connor may be retiring from Ohio's high court, but not from tormenting the GOP

O'Connor has said she would like to see a new plan go on the ballot in November 2024 — a presidential election, where turnout would be at his highest. But Miller says it's too soon to set a target date.

One thing is certain, though, Miller said. Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly will not have a seat at the table in drawing a plan this time around.

"I don't think this legislature can be trusted," Miller said. "We worked with them the first time around. Where did that get us? When the plan was in place, they did nothing but sabotage the process. We're not doing that again."

And even their most recent convert, Mike DeWine, can't fix that problem. Even if he really wants to.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.