COLUMBUS -- As a congressional redistricting plan moved closer to reality Thursday, the Ohio Democratic Party threatened to subject the proposal to a voter referendum. That could carry the constitutional fight into late 2012 and raises the specter of a federal court eventually taking the pencil and eraser out of the state's hands.
"We are prepared to use every tool, every constitutional resource at our disposal to fight this unfair, anti-voter congressional map,'' party Chairman Chris Redfern said. "While we're not surprised that Republicans are again ignoring the will of the people, Republicans should not be surprised when the people of the state fight back.''
The House voted 56-36 Thursday to approve House Bill 319, a map that is also likely to be subjected to a court constitutional challenge. The bill faces a vote next week in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Ohio will sacrifice two of its 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives because of its sluggish population growth over the last 10 years compared to faster-growing southern and western states.
Blocked by their minority numbers in the Ohio House and Senate, Democrats are increasingly turning to voter referendums to challenge Republican-passed laws, as evidenced by the upcoming Nov. 8 vote on Senate Bill 5, the public-employee collective bargaining law. There's also a petition effort under way to place a recently passed election law overhaul on the ballot in 2012.
If Democrats succeed in collecting at least 231,147 valid signatures of registered Ohio voters within 90 days of Gov. John Kasich's signing the redistricting bill, the measure would be placed on hold until after the results of the November, 2012, election are known. That's too late for next year's congressional election.
Mr. Redfern said he hoped a pending referendum on the law would force Republicans to negotiate. If successful in garnering signatures, the committee behind a certified referendum could voluntarily pull it from the ballot.
"If a state can't get its act together, according to federal law, federal courts are authorized to impose their own plan of redistricting,'' said Lee Strang, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Toledo. "If the key date approaches, if the primaries for the next election are to be held, then they'll step in.''
He also pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that held, in the case of a complete breakdown of the legislative process, that a congressional election could proceed with members elected at large in the state rather than within districts.
State Rep. Matt Huffman (R., Lima), the bill's sponsor, said the Cincinnati-based U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals could end up drawing the map.
"They're not all Ohioans,'' he said. "There's folks from Michigan, Tennessee, and Kentucky on the court, and that may be who ends up picking your representatives in the state of Ohio.''
The proposed GOP map would create four solidly Democratic districts and 12 districts that are either strongly Republican or lean in that direction.
"Look at what you all did to Toledo,'' state Rep. Ronald Gerberry (D., Austintown) told House Republicans.
"What this map does to the city of Toledo is disgraceful.''
The map would divide Toledo three ways among districts represented by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green), and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Urbana).
"Clearly, there are good examples in the state where communities who've had multiple congressional officeholders and multiple state legislators have used that to their advantage to gain more momentum by virtue of … more members working for their efforts,'' state Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon) said.
The map would also create a revamped 9th District, now represented by Miss Kaptur, that would snake farther east along the Lake Erie shoreline from Toledo to Cleveland, with slivers of Lucas, Ottawa, Erie, Lorain, and Cuyahoga counties. It sets up a potential 2012 primary clash of two veteran Democratic members of Congress -- Miss Kaptur and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland.
Mr. Redfern said the Ohio Democratic Party would not play favorites in a primary election clash between two of its congressional titans.
"We'll see how this thing plays out,'' he said. "The person that touches the most people wins, literally. In Toledo, Marcy Kaptur -- that's her strength. On the west side of Cleveland, that's Dennis Kucinich's strength.
"This election will be won from Rocky River to Port Clinton,'' he said.
"The winning candidate will spend more of their time in those communities. It's not an election you can win on Cleveland television or Toledo television, because, frankly, in Lorain County or in Sandusky there's an expectation that there will be retail politics.''
The map drew the support of three House Democrats, all African-Americans happy with how the map treats minority districts. Rep. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo), the only African-American in the Ohio House representing northwest Ohio, opposed the map.
"By splitting Toledo-Lucas County into three districts, our political voice is greatly diminished,'' he said.
"These districts split up communities, carve up counties, and drown out the voice of middle-class Ohioans," Mr. Ashford said.
Five Republicans broke with their caucus to oppose it. Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont) was among them. His House district, now part of Mr. Latta's 5th Congressional District, would become part of Mr. Jordan's 4th.
"I don't think the map is in the best interests of northwest Ohio,'' Mr. Damschroder said. "I commend Congressman Latta. He's been very receptive, and he's 20 to 30 miles away.
"I know Jim Jordan. I like Jim Jordan. I've worked with Jim Jordan. I came into the [Ohio] House with Jim Jordan. He's a hardworking, great congressman. But he's also 100 miles away.''
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.