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Ohio Starts Redistricting Next Year. What Will The State's New Process Look Like?

David Niven, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati holds a map demonstrating a gerrymandered Ohio district, Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Cincinnati.
John Minchillo
Associated Press
David Niven, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati holds a map demonstrating a gerrymandered Ohio district, Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Cincinnati.

Another election is in the books, and while counties around Ohio are still finishing off their official canvass, the results really aren’t in doubt: It was a great cycle for Republicans. 

The GOP won the state’s presidential contest, picked up seats in the Ohio General Assembly, and just as it has since the current congressional map was drawn, it maintained an outsized 12-4 majority of U.S. House seats.

But starting next year, Ohio lawmakers are going back to the drawing board for both the state legislature and congressional maps, with new provisions aimed at creating a more balanced set of district lines. Those changes include a more bipartisan process with greater demands for fairness.

But Catherine Turcer, who heads up the good government group Common Cause, acknowledges the plan isn’t perfect.

“We should look at the new ways that congressional district lines are drawn as a compromise,” she says.

Instead, Turcer explains the plan attempts to encourage bipartisanship by making the alternative an even bitterer pill.

“One of the things they were trying to do when they were creating this compromise is to come up with a final stage that would be so prohibitive and unattractive that legislators would not choose it,” Turcer says.

The New Process

One of the chief efforts to keep things above board is to keep borders along existing municipal lines. For instance, there’s a hard limit on how many times counties can be split. Most of Ohio’s 88 counties can’t be split at all. Up to 18 can be split once, and five can be split twice.

The core demands driving the new mapmaking process are higher thresholds and minority buy-in. State lawmakers will, as before, have the first crack at drawing district lines.

But they’ll now have to produce a map that gets 60% support overall and approval from at least half of the minority party.

If that doesn’t work, the task goes to a redistricting commission made up of the governor, state auditor, Secretary of State, and four lawmakers—two from each party. This group can approve a map with a simple majority, but at least two minority party members have to support it.

Finally, if the commission fails to reach agreement, the map goes back to the legislature. Now, lawmakers still need to gain 60% support overall, but the threshold for minority support drops to one-third.

After that, lawmakers can pass a new set of districts with a simple majority, but they face a series of drawbacks. First, the map will only be in place for four years; second, they have less flexibility on splitting municipal boundaries; and third, they have to provide a written explanation for their work.

If the map winds up in court, that explanation will could wind up as ammunition for the map’s challengers.

What’s more, that four-year map creates uncertainty for sitting members of Congress as well as aspiring candidates—some of whom might be drawing the maps.

After The 2020 Election

With the GOP gaining ground in the state legislature, they will again control much of the mapmaking process – as they did in 2010, when the current 12-4 map was created behind closed doors and with consultation from national Republicans.

Across the aisle, fewer Democratic lawmakers means a lower bar to reach 50% approval, but it also makes it easier for a determined opposition to have an impact.

Turcer is quick to note the process would likely work best when the two major parties have similar representation in the chambers. That’s why, even though Republicans maintained control of the Ohio Supreme Court, Turcer believes the election of Democrat Jennifer Brunner could be a positive development.

“It makes a difference that the court is a little but more balanced,” Turcer says. “I also think Jennifer Brunner brings her experience as Secretary of State, and that could be beneficial to the court as they go forward and consider mapmaking and the details that go into the maps.”

With Brunner on the bench, the court moves to a 4-3 partisan split in favor of the GOP, down from 5-2 this year.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.