Ohio primary election nearing, but redistricting chaos raises questions

The first primary election ballots for 2022 are scheduled to go out Friday, but the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision late Wednesday to again throw out state House and Senate district maps leaves candidates and election officials alike wondering what to do.

“I wish I knew,” said state Rep. Brian Lampton, R-Beavercreek. “I’m sure it’s frustrating for all of the candidates.”

He faces Katherine Shutte in the Republican primary, one of the few contested House or Senate races in the region. Lampton has represented District 73, but that district in western Greene County was renumbered as District 70 in the latest, though now overturned, map.

That number could change again, and so might its boundaries — all with a primary election still scheduled for May 3.

Lampton said he’s going to as many public events as he can, but otherwise “everything’s on pause.”

“As far as targeted mailing and social networking, you can’t. You just have to wait,” he said.

Shutte likewise said she’s still meeting as many people as possible and moving forward with her campaign, but acknowledged the long-running map fight has created obstacles.

“The continued uncertainty with the redistricting has made it extremely difficult to finalize a campaign strategy and go forward with it,” she said. “Not knowing for sure exactly what area my district will cover and if the primary will be moved, it is impossible to create a plan and stick to it.”

Ohio voters created a new redistricting process through constitutional amendment, and this round of redistricting — required to conform with 2020 census results — is the first use of the new system. The seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission first passed new maps in September, approving them on a 5-2, party-line vote.

But progressive and voting-rights groups immediately sued, and the state Supreme Court has now thrown out three sets of maps as gerrymandered to unfairly favor Republicans.

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Bernard Willis is running uncontested in the Republican primary to replace state Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, who is term-limited. That district — formerly numbered 79, but District 74 on the latest maps — is “pretty well locked into” Springfield itself and most of Clark County’s townships, Willis said.

Previous versions of the district’s boundaries changed a few of the townships around, and some may change again, so Willis is campaigning in as many townships as possible, he said

“It hasn’t affected us campaign-wise to a large degree,” Willis said.

But the ongoing legal fight is potentially confusing for voters, and it feels “very, very strange” to be this close to the scheduled election date without knowing his district number or exact boundaries, he said.

Outside help needed?

Mark Caleb Smith, political science professor and director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University, said there’s no way to tell how the dispute will finally turn out.

“You’re seeing some of that ‘newness’ effect right now. Both parties are figuring out how to play it to their advantage,” he said.

Smith said he doesn’t think anyone anticipated the aggressiveness of the court in demanding an end to partisan gerrymandering.

“If that’s the approach the court takes, this is going to be potentially revolutionary,” he said.

Justices have repeatedly ruled 4-3 against the maps, with Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, joining the court’s three Democrats.

In a ruling issued late Wednesday, the court ordered the Ohio Redistricting Commission to draw a fourth set of state legislative maps by March 28. In the majority opinion, justices cited Republican commissioners’ delays in the face of repeated calls from the two Democratic members to meet and draw a bipartisan plan.

“Substantial and compelling evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the main goal of the individuals who drafted the second revised plan was to favor the Republican Party and disfavor the Democratic Party,” the ruling says.

The latest maps would create 19 House and seven Senate districts with razor-thin Democratic margins while all Republican seats are safer.

“The remarkably one-sided distribution of toss-up districts is evidence of an intentionally biased map, and it leads to partisan asymmetry,” justices wrote.

The majority opinion says Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, and House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima — both redistricting commission members — have controlled map-drawing from the start through their legislative staff.

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“The commission should retain an independent map drawer — who answers to all commission members, not only to the Republican legislative leaders — to draft a plan through a transparent process,” justices said. “To promote transparency and increase public trust, the drafting should occur in public and the commissioners should convene frequent meetings to demonstrate their bipartisan efforts to reach a constitutional plan within the time set by this court.”

Instructions needed

Jeff Rezabek, director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said his office is still aiming to send out ballots to military and overseas voters by the Friday deadline. He expects that will be about 100 ballots.

“Until we get further direction from the Secretary of State’s office, we are just moving forward with everything,” Rezabek said. “I think everybody should be prepared for a May primary at this point.”

It’s easier to take names and races off a ballot than to add them, he said. Even if state House and Senate races aren’t on the ballot, other local and statewide offices will be.

Other counties likewise say they’re prepared to hold a successful May primary, whatever the final ballot looks like, according to Rezabek. But if state legislative districts aren’t settled in time, a second primary just for those might be held Aug. 2, he said.

Proposals of moving the whole primary to a later date, or splitting it to hold state House and Senate races later, have not gained much traction so far. But that may change, Smith said.

“It’s likely to delay the primary, for sure,” he said.

The problem with holding a second primary for those state seats is the increased cost, Smith said.

“I’ve seen estimates of $20 million to $25 million,” he said.

County election staff have been preparing for multiple scenarios, including a third rejection of legislative maps, according to Sarah Greathouse, Montgomery County Board of Elections deputy director. But the continued uncertainty ought to prompt fast action from the current General Assembly, she said.

“For weeks, elections officials have been united in our recommendation to the legislature that the best course of action for Ohio’s voters would be to delay the entire primary,” Greathouse said in an email. “On the eve of the federal deadline to send ballots to overseas and military voters, the best solution to safely administer this election is for the Ohio Legislature, as is their right, to choose a later date for the entire 2022 primary.”

Under the latest directive from Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, county election officials do have a little leeway on sending out military and overseas ballots, according to Brian Sleeth, Warren County Board of Elections director and president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

But election officials in Ohio’s 88 counties don’t know what to do about state House and Senate races, he said.

“Do we leave these offices on the ballot? Do we make a new ballot?” Sleeth said.

They need more guidance from LaRose’s office, and have been told that something in that line will be coming soon, he said.

“As an association, we’re still going to believe that one primary is in the best interest of the voters, taxpayers and election administrators,” Sleeth said.

Spokespeople for the Secretary of State’s office and the House and Senate majority caucuses all said they’re reviewing the court’s decision.

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