Here’s how new census data will lead to the drawing of new political lines

Newly released census data has the potential to change political boundaries, as state officials work on redrawing congressional and Ohio General Assembly district lines. But new rules for redistricting may limit that impact.

The U.S. Census Bureau released its official 2020 population count of cities, counties and other localities on Thursday. In Southwest Ohio, some cities saw small losses, like Dayton and Springfield, while other areas like Middletown, Hamilton and Fairborn saw increases.

Cincinnati and Columbus, one of the fastest growing cities in the country, also added residents.

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Activist groups lost no time weighing in Thursday. Common Cause Ohio, a voters’ rights organization, issued a statement urging a transparent redistricting process that puts communities of color “at the center of the conversation.”

The Equal Districts Coalition, an umbrella for about two dozen progressive groups, called for the redistricting commission and legislature to start working on “fair, representative districts,” describing Ohio’s current districts as “some of the most rigged in the nation.”

Previously, Ohio’s redistricting process was pretty predictable — including gerrymandering, said Marc Clauson, professor of history, law and honors at Cedarville University. But new laws could significantly change that.

“What’s going to happen in that is that we don’t know what kind of district boundaries they’re going to draw yet,” he said. “Even though its not supposed to be political, it still could be.”

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In 2018, voters approved a state constitutional amendment on congressional redistricting. It says a three-fifths majority of the state legislature can adopt a new congressional district map, if that includes at least half of the minority party’s members.

If the General Assembly can’t agree on a map, a seven-member commission of state officials – including at least two members of the minority party – would try to do so. If that commission can’t agree, the General Assembly could try again, this time needing a three-fifths majority, including one-third of the minority party’s members.

Any of those maps would be valid for a decade. But if all those efforts fail, the majority party alone could pass a map that would be valid for four years.

Any political fallout from the census shouldn’t damage Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, due to its healthy mix of vital jobs and research, Clauson said. Wright-Patterson, with about 30,000 jobs, is the largest single-site employer in Ohio.

“No matter what happens, Wright-Patterson is in a stable position,” he said.

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that congressional districts must be equal or very close in population, which makes gerrymandering harder, Clauson said.

Still, state legislative districts are a “different kind of animal,” which will probably remain political, Clauson said.

“At the state level, I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of change,” he said.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2015 to create a seven-member bipartisan state legislative redistricting commission. Reflecting state government’s current makeup, the Ohio Redistricting Commission has five Republican and two Democratic members. It plans to hold nine public hearings on redistricting.

If at least two commissioners from each major political party vote to approve a map, it’s valid for 10 years. If a map passes on partisan lines, it’s only good for four years.

The state legislative map must be completed by Sept. 15 at the latest, and the congressional map by Sept. 30. If a congressional map isn’t done by then, the redistricting commission has until Oct. 31 to draw one. If it can’t agree on a map by then, the General Assembly has until Nov. 30 to draw one.

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