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Battle heats up over how Ohio should draw congressional district lines

Rather than fix a broken system, a plan backed by Republican state lawmakers will make certain Ohio voters get gerrymandered congressional districts for years to come, according to grassroots groups that are pushing a vastly different reform package.

The groups — Common Cause Ohio, League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Ohio NAACP — came out against the lawmaker’s plan Monday, saying it is unfair to voters.

“It does not provide relief from the current situation of partisan gerrymandering and it does make things worse,” said Ann Henneker of the League of Women Voters.

She said it’s possible under the lawmaker plan to draw districts so that Ohio has a dozen GOP-held congressional seats and just three Democratic-held seats. The current makeup is 12 GOP districts and four Democratic districts, but Ohio is expected to lose a congressional seat after the 2020 Census.

Related: Groups rebuke redistricting plan

State Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, couldn’t be reached for comment, but previously has said that the lawmaker plan would “ensure that the process for drawing congressional district lines is fair and equitable no matter which party is in the majority.

“We are committed to reaching a reasonable solution in a bipartisan manner,” he has said.

Lawmakers are working to hit a Feb. 7 deadline to put the congressional redistricting proposal before Ohio voters in May. Huffman’s proposal is scheduled for hearings in Columbus this week.

Fair Districts = Fair Elections, a grassroots coalition of 35 groups including the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, has 200,000 voters’ signatures of the required 306,000 to put a different constitutional amendment before Ohio voters in November. It is facing a July 4 deadline for collection of the signatures.

Related: Ohio voters may change the way Congressional district lines are drawn

Ohioans could end up voting on both proposals this year. Henneker said if both pass, the Fair Districts = Fair Elections’ plan would trump an earlier-adopted measure.

Ohio redraws legislative and congressional districts every 10 years following the U.S. Census. For generations, the party that controls the process has drawn districts in its favor.

But grassroots groups have fought party control over the maps — often termed gerrymandering — in a number of states, including Ohio.

In November 2015, 71 percent of Ohio voters approved a reform plan for drawing legislative districts. It set up an expanded redistricting commission that gives the minority party more power and discourages partisanship, requires compact and competitive districts and adds transparency to the process.

But that new system only applies to legislative seats in the Ohio Statehouse — not congressional seats. The Fair Districts = Fair Elections’ plan would set up a system for drawing congressional lines that is similar to the ballot proposal on legislative districts.

Related: Former state Sen. Tom Roberts elected Ohio Conference NAACP president

The Huffman plan is different. It would initially leave redistricting in the hands of the state legislature but require support from one-third of the minority party. If the legislature couldn’t reach agreement, a seven-member Redistricting Commission would get involved under rules that specify some minority party input.

Former state lawmaker Tom Roberts, a Dayton Democrat and president of the Ohio Conference of the NAACP, said just because gerrymandered districts have been the norm for decades doesn’t make it right.

“What’s going on in Columbus and what’s going on in Washington right now shows us what the problem is when it comes to not having fair districts,” Roberts said.

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