2023 Year in Review: Lawmakers get new district maps again, more change could be coming
Gerrymandering was once again a watch word in Ohio politics this year, as lawmakers had to draw new maps to replace the ones used because of a federal court order in 2022.
State lawmakers and Ohio’s congressional delegation were elected in 2022 under district maps that had been rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court but were put in place by a federal court. A lawsuit over the congressional map was dismissed in September, so that map stays through 2024.
But new maps for Ohio House and Senate were needed, so the Ohio Redistricting Commission met September 13 for its first meeting since May 2022. And it didn’t launch well, as the five Republicans on the panel couldn’t pick a co-chair, and the two Democrats wouldn’t announce their co-chair until the Republicans did. Gov. Mike DeWine was supposed to swear in his fellow commission members.
“Is this an inauspicious start?" DeWine was asked.
“Well, we haven’t started yet," DeWine said with a chuckle.
Work moves quickly, as opponents speak out
Republican commission member Secretary of State Frank LaRose had said because of the Dec. 20 filing deadline for the March primary, maps had to pass by Oct. 23 – a little over a month away. Co-chairs were finally picked, and working maps were approved Sept. 21. Four required hearings were held over the next four days – including on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
The turnout for those sessions was low, and often included people who’d come to hearings before. Catherine Turcer is with Common Cause Ohio, and has been speaking out about redistricting for more than a decade.
“Because of foot dragging, backroom map-making and repeated redraws, many Ohioans are so frustrated that they have frankly given up on you,” Turcer told the commission at a hearing at Deer Creek Park.
As the same hearing, former Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper, who's offered remarks at redistricting hearings before, said, “We are pulling apart, one piece at a time, the essence of democracy in our state and we are absolutely thumbing our nose at the rule of law."
VL Bicknell had never been to a hearing, but had heard about it on public radio and decided to show up on her way to the beach at Deer Creek.
“I do, as a citizen, hate that Ohio takes in on the chin repeatedly for being corrupt,” Bicknell said.
Maps with GOP supermajority pass unanimously
A week later, the commission unanimously adopted maps that were expected to result in a 62% Republican supermajority in the House and nearly 70% in the Senate.
"I think this map meets the constitutional test. It certainly does what we indicated should be done. It allows people to be represented by people who share their views and values. And it keeps communities together, certainly where possible," sadi Republican commission member and state auditor Keith Faber.
House Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) described it as the hardest vote she’s cast since she took office, but she said it took the pen away from majority Republicans who drew the maps last year and this time.
“It was very clear that allowing them to do that over and over again was not going to change the outcome," Russo said in a year-end interview for "The State of Ohio."
Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima), who appointed Sen. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon) to the commission, said in an interview for "The State of Ohio" that the maps were fair for a heavily Republican state and the commission worked as it was supposed to.
“It was the insertion of the court into the process which corrupted the process. So when the process was allowed to act and in fact, we have a series of incentives and reward for people to act, it got a unanimous vote," Huffman said.
In November the Ohio Supreme Court voted along party lines to uphold the maps, with the majority saying the unanimous vote makes the claims in the lawsuit filed by opponents moot. They’d be in place for 10 years, but an effort to change the whole process again is well underway.
Ballot issue to change process may be coming
The group Citizens Not Politicians is proposing a 15 member commission made up of equal parts Republicans, Democrats and independents, but no current or former politicians. The group pushing this constitutional amendment for the November 2024 ballot includes advocates who supported the 2015 and 2018 amendments to create the Ohio Redistricting Commission, and is led by retired Republican chief justice Maureen O’Connor, who struck down every map from the commission as unconstitutional.
“In retrospect, looking at those constitutional amendments, realizing who populated the commission, it was doomed to fail," said O'Connor.
Citizens Not Politicians had to start the process toward the ballot over in October after discovering a typo in its summary language, but now has until July 3 to gather more than 413,000 valid signatures.