No new cards as commission ignores court order

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The Ohio Redistricting Commission failed to pass new maps of the State House and Senate on Thursday, violating an Ohio Supreme Court order.

Republicans, who dominate the commission, said they could not comply with the Ohio Supreme Court’s redistricting demands and the state Constitution at the same time. Democratic members of the commission said Republicans simply lacked the will to do their jobs.

Now the Ohio Supreme Court must decide what to do with a commission that won’t follow its orders. The commission and tribunal are operating under a new set of rules, approved by voters in 2015 to curb partisan gerrymandering, so there is no blueprint for what happens next.

Meanwhile, Ohioans lack precincts for 99 House seats and 33 Senate seats — lines needed to elect party nominees for representative on May 3. The commission’s inaction throws these races, and the impending primary, into even more trouble.

“We are dangerously close to possibly violating federal law,” said Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, the state’s top election official and commissioner.

The commission now faces another daunting task: to enact a new map of Congress in the coming weeks. Their first card was struck down by the Supreme Court of Ohio as unconstitutional gerrymandering.

Impossible task or no will?

The Ohio Supreme Court has twice ordered the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission to adopt constitutional maps for the House and Senate districts.

The court, in both 4-3 rulings, ruled that the cards must conform to Ohio’s statewide voting preferences, which stand at 54% for Republican candidates and 46% for Democratic candidates over the past decade.

Republican Senate Speaker Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said the task set by the Ohio Supreme Court was impossible.

“No General Assembly district plan has been introduced to date that achieves a strictly proportional result of 54-46 without committing other material violations of the Ohio Constitution,” Huffman said.

But is he right? The majority of the court didn’t think so, and neither did the Democrats on the commission. Gov. Mike DeWine said the commission could and should have adopted maps on Thursday that came close to what the court wanted.

“We have an obligation to follow the Constitution, follow the court order and pass a map. It was the obligation. I think we could have passed a map,” DeWine said.

So why didn’t they? “You should ask legislative leaders about this,” DeWine said. “The people who draw the map work directly for them.”

Huffman said they tried. “We tried to enforce the court order. Under state law, constitutional law, two Supreme Court decisions and federal law and federal constitutional law, we tried over the last 10 days of drawing a map that conforms to all of this and we don’t think it’s possible.”

But House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, disagreed, saying, “It’s a question of what we can accomplish and what we choose not to do. .”

“Respecting proportionality as required by the Constitution is not gerrymandering,” Russo said. “It is possible for us to draw constitutional maps and work together as the court ordered us to do.”

Democratic Cards Rejected

The decision to forgo a third set of cards came after Democrats spent an hour discussing their proposed cards – which would give Republicans a 54-45 advantage in the House and an 18-15 advantage in the Senate.

The Republicans never offered a new set of cards. LaRose said GOP legislative staff told the commission it was impossible to produce maps that complied with both the Ohio Constitution and court orders — a point Democrats dispute.

Huffman said the Democrats’ cards unfairly favored Democratic candidates over Republicans — in violation of voter-approved changes to the Ohio Constitution. He pointed to 10 House Republicans paired in districts with other lawmakers.

“This card only favors the Democratic Party and only disadvantages the Republican Party,” Huffman said.

Russo argued that to align legislative maps with the voting preferences of Ohioans, Democrats would win seats and Republicans would lose them. It’s not gerrymandering, it’s partisan balance.

“If the standard is the current set of maps, which favor Republicans, or the maps that you proposed at the last committee meeting and were rejected by the courts, … if that is the standard that you use, so yeah, some Republicans are going to lose seats,” Russo said.

Huffman also criticized House districts in the Democratic proposals for not being compact, citing one that stretched between Summit, Portage and Geauga counties. A proposed district for the Ohio Senate ran from Toledo to Crawford County.

Huffman said he shares concerns about the compactness and division of communities, which the public has raised in public hearings held across the state. But Huffman’s attendance at these hearings was uneven; he often sent other senators to attend. Governor DeWine skipped one to attend the Bengals’ training camp.

That prompted Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron to say, “I’m surprised you’re emphasizing this now.”

In a long back and forth, Russo repeatedly asked Huffman what constitutional violation he was alleging. Ultimately, the commission did not pass the Democratic cards, voting to reject them along party lines.

Without maps and without a political path, it’s hard to see how the people of Ohio escape this loop between the commission and the court.

“I find it incredibly unfortunate that the people of Ohio are being held hostage by politicians who care more about their own power than creating cards that people deserve,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women. Voters of Ohio.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor’s statement during oral argument in December proved prescient: “If it (the map) is disputed and comes back here, it could go on forever.”

Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Akron Beacon Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch and 18 other affiliate news organizations in Ohio.

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