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Ohio Lawmakers Convene Redistricting Panel Charged With Drawing State Legislative Maps

The Ohio Statehouse in downtown Columbus on March 26, 2020.
Ryan Hitchcock
The Ohio Statehouse in downtown Columbus on March 26, 2020.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Friday convenes the state redistricting commission, a seven- member board, charged with drafting new maps for state lawmakers’ districts. They’ve got a lot on their plate and not a lot of time to handle it all.

The governor, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Auditor Keith Faber will be teaming up with four legislators—two from each party and chamber. House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima) and minority leader Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Akron) will represent the House. From the Senate, president Matt Huffman (R-Lima) will join Sen. Vernon Sykes (D-Akron) on the commission.

The panel is in charge of drafting new district lines for the Ohio House and Senate. Meanwhile, sitting lawmakers get the first crack at drawing the map for congressional districts.

In both cases this is the first time Ohio is redrawing its boundaries with new constitutional rules approved by the voters. Those amendments require drafters to keep geographic boundaries like counties, cities and townships whole where possible, and demand buy-in from the minority party.

Catherine Turcer from the government watchdog Common Cause Ohio said those rules will help keep the process fair.

“You need to have two Democrats and two Republicans, so we should think of the Democrats as having a strong veto on any map,” Turcer explains. “So no matter what, it’s hard to come up with bipartisan maps, but what should really guide the process are the good rules.”

If the commission can’t get its two Democrats on board, whatever map they do approve will only be in place for four years. After that, they’ll have to get back together and try again.

Complicating matters further is the months-long delay in receiving data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In normal years that data would be sent to states in April. This year, states won’t receive data until August 12. After that, state contractors have to format the information, and get into a database so mapmakers can begin their work. Once a map is drawn the commission is constitutionally obligated to hold at least three public hearings around the state before final approval.

The deadline? September 1, just over two weeks after the commission will receive census data.

Turcer said that timeline is unrealistic. But she also notes even when things are working great, this redistricting process hasn’t always finished on time. In 2011, for instance the initial map was overturned.

“New maps were created, and that was approved at the very end of November,” Turcer said, “and so we have not always gotten to things right on the deadline. So what’s important is good maps, deadlines are to help keep us going they’re not to make us crazy.”

Without data in hand, the commission’s first meeting will likely be heavy on organization and agenda setting. Turcer suggests the commission could do something like petition the state supreme court for additional time. Democrats in the General Assembly have been calling for that since April.

“They can actually go and ask for more time—I’m surprised they haven’t done it already,” Turcer said. “On the other hand I think everybody has been in this kind of weird holding pattern trying to figure out what will happen.”

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.