SUDDES: Redistricting challenges make a Rubik’s Cube look like child’s play

Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University. He covered the Statehouse for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer for many years.

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Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University. He covered the Statehouse for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer for many years.

The Ohio redistricting mess – as to Ohio General Assembly seats – may end up where Statehouse Republicans arguably always aimed to put it: In front of three federal judges rather than in front of the Ohio Supreme Court. Or, based on a federal court hearing Wednesday, the dispute may remain the state court’s hottest potato.

Meanwhile, Ohioans will be expected to nominate U.S. House candidates at the May 3 primary election, assuming that’s when the primary is held, even though the nominees will arguably be running in gerrymandered congressional districts, at least until the state Supreme Court manages to review them.

This tangle was made inevitable thanks to a couple misconceived – or at least misunderstood – state constitutional amendments, political mulishness and political geography.

As a few bystanders quietly predicted at the time, the 2015 and 2018 amendments aimed at reforming how Ohio draws its General Assembly and congressional districts, respectively, promised more than they could deliver. Or more than they seem to deliver.

The November 2015 ballot issue, overwhelmingly OK’d by Ohio voters, was officially said to “[create] a bipartisan, public process for drawing [General Assembly] districts.” The May 2018 ballot issue, according to its description, would “end the partisan process for drawing [Ohio] congressional districts.” Voters agreed to that, too.

In fact, the amendments really did two concrete things. First, they derailed what likely would have been far stronger voter-petitioned (“initiated”) ballot issues to reform reapportionment (legislature) and “redistricting” (Congress) plans. Second, as a practical matter, the amendments still allow gerrymandering, but for four years at a time, instead of ten.

Split hairs till the cows come home, but those are the facts: This year, there was nothing bipartisan – and little public – about how the Redistricting Commission fashioned districts.

As noted, the resulting congressional districts stand, for now. Meanwhile, General Assembly Gerrymander No. 4, approved 4-3 by the Redistricting commissioners late on Monday, will be junked or OK’d by the state Supreme Court or a (possibly) by a GOP-friendlier panel of three federal judges.

More dithering will follow if, as could happen, the state Supreme Court rejects Gerrymander No. 4 and the three-judge federal panel approves it, which seems like the bet that key Statehouse Republicans (Senate President Matt Huffman, House Speaker Robert R. Cupp, Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose) placed Monday night.

The three-judge panel of federal judges is composed of Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon Markley, of Southern Ohio; Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Amul Thapar; and U.S. District Judge Benjamin Beaton, of Western Kentucky. Marbley was appointed by a Democratic president, Thapar and Beaton by Republican presidents.

In fairness, something the GOP’s Huffman and others said appears to be a genuine factor in the Redistricting Commission’s claimed difficulty in drawing “enough” (as in “a fair number”) of Democratic districts.

There problem is geo-political. Review a list of state representatives and state senators from the 1970s and 1980s – 20-year Democratic Speaker Vern Riffe’s era. You’ll find a fair number of Democratic legislators who hailed from such rural Ohio towns as Botkins (Shelby County), Mount Orab (Brown County) or Senecaville (Guernsey County). But in recent years, Democrats have mostly lost the rural vote in Ohio, Athens County excepted.

That creates tough challenges if you try to follow the Ohio Constitution’s exacting rules about not “over-splitting” Ohio’s 88 counties, and the state’s 247 cities, 684 villages and 1,308 townships, among 99 House and 33 Senate districts. That makes a Rubik’s Cube child’s play – or slates a federal case. Take your pick.

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