State lawmakers and a coalition of good government groups are on the verge of remaking the way Ohio draws its congressional district maps, after weeks of furious and fitful behind-the-scenes negotiations.
The Ohio Senate voted 31-0 on the plan which now heads to the Ohio House, which is planning a Tuesday vote.
The Senate Government Oversight Committee voted 11-0 in favor of the deal struck Monday afternoon.
“It’s nice we’re finally putting this to bed after 150 years of fighting about it, particularly over the last 40 years,” said state Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, a chief player in the negotiations.
Ohio Environmental Council Director Heather Taylor-Miesle, a lead negotiator for a coalition of good government groups seeking reforms, said the new system will lead to more responsive representatives in Congress. “I think in 2022, you’ll see a lot more competitive districts. People are not going to be able to take their citizens for granted anymore.”
The Ohio General Assembly will retain control over the map making but the majority party will no longer be able to push through a map without any support from the minority party. The latest plan calls for a three-stage process for drawing Ohio’s congressional maps following the U.S. census every 10 years.
The General Assembly would be able to pass a 10-year congressional district map provided they have three-fifths vote, including at least half of the minority and majority party members, in each chamber.
If they fail to do so by September 30 of the year following the census, the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission would take over map making. If the commission fails to agree on a 10-year map by Oct. 31, the responsibility goes back to the General Assembly, which can pass 10-year or 4-year maps, by Nov. 30.
The four-year maps would face restrictions: no unduly favoring or disfavoring a political party or incumbents; limiting splits of counties; and a public explanation for why the map was drawn in a particular way.
“I think in general the concept of having a four-year map is undesirable to most folks because it creates a lot of chaos,” Huffman said. “I think for the public, having changes in congressional districts and who their representative is is generally not a good idea….That’s why we wanted plenty of opportunity to get a 10-year map somewhere along the line.”
Any map would be subject to voter referenda and a governor’s veto.
If lawmakers agree by Wednesday, the proposed state constitutional amendment will be placed on the May 8 primary ballot.
Taylor-Miesle said Fair Districts = Fair Elections, the coalition of reform seekers, isn’t necessarily abandoning its effort to collect more than 300,000 valid voter signatures by July 4 to place a different constitutional amendment before voters in November. She noted that effort may continue as a back-stop in case the Huffman plan doesn’t win voter approval in May.
“I don’t know what we’ll do. We just have to make the call. We have not had that discussion at this point,” she said.
Taylor-Miesle said the negotiations at times took an unusual path. “This is the first time in my career I’ve ever had to negotiate via text sometimes in the middle of a Super Bowl and all that kind of fun stuff.”