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Published: Thursday, 7/21/2011

Lawmakers in Ohio begin process of redrawing congressional districts

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -- Ohio lawmakers Tuesday began redrawing congressional districts, knowing that when the game of musical chairs ends, two congressmen will find themselves without districts.

Lawmakers were urged at a Statehouse hearing to create more districts that African-Americans could win, avoid carving up counties and cities between districts, and create politically competitive districts.

"We believe the voters should pick the legislators, not the other way around,'' said Beth Taggart of the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Columbus.

But while incumbent protection sometimes emerges as a dirty word in redistricting, the committee was assured that nothing prevents politics from playing a role in where lines are drawn on the final map.

Lynda Jacobsen, staff attorney with the Ohio Legislative Services Commission, told a joint hearing of House and Senate select committees on redistricting that the courts have recognized incumbent protection as a legitimate principle that lawmakers may consider as long as it doesn't result in violations of other principles such as protecting minority voting clout and keeping districts as compact as possible with contiguous territory.

But Daniel Tokaji, an elections law professor at the Ohio State University Moritz Collect of Law, said incumbent protection can be overdone.

"It is true that, while incumbency may be considered, it is possible that a court could knock it down because it is too protective of incumbents,'' he said.

Once a decade, following each U.S. Census, state officials must redraw congressional and state legislative districts to equalize district populations as much as possible.

Because Ohio's population grew at a slower pace in the 2000s than other states, it will sacrifice two of its current 18 congressional districts to faster-growing states like Arizona and Texas.

The greatest population losses occurred in northeast Ohio, so it is expected that at least one of the two sacrificed districts will be erased there. With Republicans holding the pencil and eraser, the district named most often is Cleveland's 10th, represented by U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Currently, Republicans hold 13 of Ohio's 18 congressional seats.

"We haven't had any discussions about incumbent protection…,'' said Sen. Keith Faber (R., Celina), chairman of the Senate committee. "Right now I think the discussion is trying to figure out how we're going to draw fair districts for Ohio, knowing that we have to lose two congressional seats. Frankly, there are going to be two incumbents who aren't going to have a seat to run in. Who those incumbents are hasn't even come close to the beginning of discussion.''

The 9th District, represented by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), is currently about 102,000 people shy of the new population target of 721,032 and will have to expand geographically to meet that goal. The district currently snakes along Lake Erie and includes most of Lucas County, all of Ottawa and Erie, and southwestern Lorain.

The largely rural 1st District, held by U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green), must pick up about 122,000 people. It encompasses all or part of 16 counties in northwest Ohio.

The two committees will continue to hold public hearings for the next two weeks.

The only hearing set for northwest Ohio will take place on Aug. 2 in the life and physical sciences building at the Ohio State University at Lima and Rhodes State College, 4240 Campus Drive.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496.



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