COLUMBUS — Ohio voters will face one, rather than two, ballot issues on congressional redistricting this year as a deal was struck Monday between dueling factions over how to curb political abuse of the process.
After several false starts, Republicans, Democrats, and a coalition of government watchdog, civil rights, labor, and voting rights organizations agreed on a proposed constitutional amendment that will be put before voters on the May 8 ballot.
The plan will limit the ability of those controlling the map-drawing pencil from drawing districts to favor a political party or incumbents. It is designed to encourage enactment of a 10-year map with minority party support rather than a stop-gap four-year map without it.
The Republican-controlled Senate voted unanimously Monday night to approve Senate Joint Resolution 5, and the House is expected to vote Tuesday. Wednesday marks the deadline to submit language to the secretary of state’s office for a proposed constitutional amendment to appear on the primary election ballot
As part of the deal, the Fair Districts = Fair Elections coalition will drop its petition effort to put a competing question on the November general election ballot. That proposal would have stripped the map-drawing authority from the General Assembly and given it to the bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission that voters approved in 2015 strictly for state House and Senate maps.
The next map will be drawn in 2021 as districts are adjusted to reflect population shifts over the current decade as reflected in the 2020 U.S. Census.
Sen. Matt Huffman (R., Lima), the measure’s sponsor, said the majority party, currently Republicans, would be discouraged from going it alone without “substantial minority buy-in” by enacting a four-year map.
“It has strict requirements about not favoring or disfavoring a party, about not dividing counties and other local jurisdictions, and there’s an incumbency provision also — not favoring or disfavoring incumbents,” he said.
Any map drawn would continue to be subject to a governor’s veto or voter referendum.
“Our line in the sand has always 100 percent been a bipartisan process that prevents favoring one politician over another politician based on party and keeps communities together,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council and a negotiator in talks for the coalition.
“We feel very strongly that this accomplishes all three of those things,” she said.
Under current law, the General Assembly passes and the governor signs new congressional maps as they would any other bill, and Republicans have controlled that process for the last several cycles.
Since 2012, Ohio has sent 12 Republicans and four Democrats to Congress, despite the fact that the GOP holds just a minor advantage in voter registration in the state. The next process will be that much tougher given that Ohio expects to lose another seat because of its sluggish population growth.
Talks had broken down several times over the last week and appeared to be at a low point on Friday, but progress was made over the weekend to place more constraints on legislators as they retain the major role in drawing the maps.
Republicans had compromised early on, increasing the requirements for minority party support of any map that would last the full 10 years and further restricting how many counties could be divided between districts.
The coalition, meanwhile, has given up on its insistence that the final plan include “representational fairness,” the concept that the final result should generally reflect party registration in the state as a whole.
The compromise plan is a hybrid, giving lawmakers first crack at passing a 10-year map with a vote of three-fifths of the chamber, including at least half of the minority members.
If that fails, the General Assembly would surrender that responsibility to the bipartisan commission created in 2010. A majority of that seven-member commission can pass a 10-year map with at least two minority votes.
Should that fail, the General Assembly would get one last shot to pass a 10-year plan, again with three-fifths of the chamber but this time with just a third of the minority.
Failing that, the General Assembly could pass a map that would last just four years with a simple majority, but stricter rules on how the map is fashioned would kick in. The majority would also have to make an official declaration to justify what it did in drafting the map, something that could become a factor if there is a court fight or voter referendum.
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