Julie Carr Smyth

Ohio redistricting panel gets back to work after map tossed

January 18, 2022 GMT

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A scolded Ohio Redistricting Commission returned to work Tuesday to re-draw maps of Ohio legislative districts, its members pledging more transparency this time around as they face a looming deadline.

In what was perhaps a gesture of bipartisan cooperation, Republican House Speaker Bob Cupp, the panel’s chair, wore one of the face masks against COVID-19 that have tended to divide Republicans and Democrats at Ohio’s Statehouse.

The state Supreme Court ordered the panel to reconstitute when it tossed Republican-drawn maps in a decision last week. It gave the panel 10 days to create new boundaries that more closely reflect the state’s 54% Republican, 46% Democratic political divide. The maps, as passed, were predicted to again deliver supermajorities in both chambers to the GOP.

The court’s majority agreed with voting-rights and Democratic groups that had challenged maps drawn and approved by Republicans as an extreme partisan gerrymander. Justices found the maps violated a constitutional amendment against gerrymandering that was broadly supported by Ohio voters in 2015.

The commission is made up of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Auditor Keith Faber, all Republicans, and four state lawmakers, two Republicans and two Democrats. DeWine swore in state Rep. Allison Russo, the House Democratic Leader-elect, on Tuesday to replace former Leader Emilia Sykes, who resigned the role in December and is running for Congress. Republican Senate President Matt Huffman and Democratic state Sen. Vernon Sykes round out the panel.

The panel released a joint statement Sunday in which they agreed that “individual commission members will have access to other commission members’ relevant staff and contractors,” consistent with the court’s instructions.

Lawsuits challenging the maps brought to light that some panel members — particularly the three statewide officials — were left at a disadvantage during the first round of map-drawing. That was because they were not given access to the experts or software that lawmakers were employing behind closed doors to produce the maps.

DeWine said Tuesday that discussions among commission members and staff have actually already begun. A former state attorney general, he said he interpreted the ruling as allowing any individual commission member to call any other member or their staff to request a meeting or to ask a question, within the limits of Ohio public meetings law.

Urging against delay, LaRose, the state’s elections chief, cautioned that mapmakers “are starting to become perilously close” to the point where administering a smooth primary on May 3 may be logistically and mechanically impossible.

“We are already approaching statutory deadlines that likely cannot be met,” he said.

The commission’s website — redistricting.ohio.gov — is being relaunched to accept public input and hearings will be streamed live on the Ohio Channel, a public state government channel.