The debate about how best to change Ohio’s system of drawing congressional boundaries is leading to heated discussions between lawmakers and supporters of a statewide ballot issue as a key deadline nears.
State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, told a group of redistricting reform supporters that he does not think drawing politically competitive congressional districts is the most important reform needed, and he said if people don’t like the job he is doing they can vote him out of office.
“I believe that the number one priority should be keeping communities together, number two should be geographic (compactness) and number three should be competitiveness,” Antani said on Thursday night during the Capitol Chat sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Greater Dayton Area.
Antani’s comments drew challenges from the audience, including when he said that Fair Districts = Fair Elections, the redistricting reform coalition that includes the League of Women Voters, Common Cause Ohio and others, is rushing its reform proposal to the ballot.
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Audience members pointed out that the coalition has been collecting signatures to put reform on the November ballot for more than a year. They said it is Republican state legislators led by state Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, who are rushing through a proposal this month that the coalition opposes because its leaders believe it will increase partisan gerrymandering, which is the process of drawing a congressional or legislative district to favor a certain party or candidate.
Huffman’s proposal, known as Senate Joint Resolution 5, is currently in committee and would go on the May ballot as a constitutional amendment if legislators approve it by the Feb. 7 filing deadline for the primary. It gives the minority party more say but would initially leave redistricting in the hands of the legislature, as it is now.
Fair Districts=Fair Elections argues that Ohio’s congressional districts are gerrymandered in a way that mostly favors Republicans even though the state is about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The state’s 16-member congressional delegation has four Democrats and 12 Republicans.
The coalition’s proposal mostly mirrors State Issue 1, which reformed state legislative redistricting and was approved by 71 percent of Ohio voters in 2015. That constitutional amendment set up an expanded redistricting commission that gave the minority party more power, required transparency and encouraged compact districts and representational fairness.
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Huffman - who advocated for Issue 1 - now says that “representational fairness” component is “gerrymandering.” But Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, says it is not gerrymandering because it would require that, as much as possible, those districts reflect how the state breaks down by Democrats and Republicans, rather than artificially pulling voters of a certain party into a district. The coalition acknowledges that every single district won’t be exactly even because Democrats or Republicans cluster is certain areas of the state.
The state’s districts will be redrawn in 2021 after the federal 2020 census.
Antani and state Rep. Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek, both told the LWV gathering that it is not possible to make their districts or some others more politically balanced.
“From folks here I get a lot of, ‘I want my vote to count’ and I agree with that and that we shouldn’t gerrymander anything,” said Perales. “(But) in my district especially, Yellow Springs is an outlier. Your vote’s never going to count in Greene County, unless we gerrymander that.”
State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said she wants to see bipartisan reform and that no one benefits when districts are drawn in a way that encourages political extremism because it “distorts all of our ability to pass good legislation.”
She got a round of applause when she added, “Can we divide them up so we get more women in the legislature?”
Huffman has said he will not go forward with a redistricting reform proposal if he cannot get Democratic support in both the state House and Senate, said Ian Dollenmayer, Huffman’s legislative aide.
Dollenmayer said Republicans hope to hash out a deal with Democrats and the Fair Districts = Fair Elections coalition and vote on it as early as next week.
On Friday House Democratic Leader Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, and Senate Democratic Leader Kenny Yuko, D- Richmond Heights, released a joint statement saying they were committed to ending gerrymandering and calling for negotiations to continue.
“Democrats are committed to requiring strong bipartisanship and stopping communities from being split apart to favor one party over another,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, the Republican plan would only change the way a majority party could manipulate districts in the future. In fact, the GOP proposals would continue the problem of unfair congressional districts by writing gerrymandering into our state constitution.”
Other stories by Lynn Hulsey