Meeting of Ohio map-drawing panel goes nowhere as members can't select co-chairs
The first meeting of the panel of politicians that draws maps for Ohio’s House and Senate districts was supposed to be just a quick organizational session. But the Ohio Redistricting Commission meeting got a late start and then recessed until Friday with no progress — because the commission members couldn’t select co-chairs.
The Ohio Redistricting Commission hadn’t met since May 5, 2022. Republicans on the panel had approved five sets of legislative maps, all of which were ruled unconstitutionally gerrymandered by the Ohio Supreme Court. A federal court put the third set of maps in place for the 2022 election only.
The panel had a new meeting room this time, and it was packed with staff, media and advocates. The five Republicans and two Democrats on the commission came into the room, and then nearly all of them left. Forty-five minutes after he was supposed to start the meeting, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine spoke to reporters.
“Is this an inauspicious start?" DeWine was asked.
“Well, we haven’t started yet," DeWine said with a chuckle.
The meeting hadn’t started because the members of the commission weren’t able to choose the bipartisan co-chairs who would lead the panel.
“We'd like to see the Senate have its opportunity to co-chair. Given that the House was co-chairing the last time. But again, that's just our preference. The speaker and the president are the ones who have to come up with the conclusion," explained Sen. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon).
House Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) said she and Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) were ready to announce their co-chair as soon as the other side did.
“We're simply waiting for the Republicans to make their decision, which will determine our decision because we think it's appropriate to have balance," Russo said. "But we are in full agreement about how we will move forward.”
Those in the room who were ready for this latest round of map-drawing to begin were frustrated.
“We are certainly concerned because if they can't even pick co-chairs, how are they going to work together to create maps that uphold the Ohio Constitution and the right of every Ohioan to have fair representation?” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, which has sued over all the maps the commission has produced.
There was the hint of political intrigue. The lawmakers on the commission are appointed by the leaders of each chamber. Republican Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) is running for the House next year, and he’s expected to challenge Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) for that leadership role if he’s elected. Neither Huffman nor Stephens would address that.
There’s also the concern about time. Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who’s also on the commission, has said the maps should be approved by Sept. 22 so everything will be in place for the March primary.
Common Cause Ohio's Catherine Turcer, who was instrumental in the campaigns to pass the amendments that put the map-drawing power in the commission’s hands, laughed when asked if she has confidence this start will bring about constitutional maps by a week from Friday.
“This reminds me of student council government. It's like, who the heck should be in charge? 'No, I want to be!' 'I want to be!'" Turcer said. "Well, these kind of power plays are not productive. It shows a dysfunction that I didn't actually think that they had. It seems like they would have gotten started today.”
Huffman said lawmakers are taking this seriously, and conversations between commission members about concepts for the maps have been happening for weeks.
Republicans gained seats in the legislature under the Republican-approved maps that were ruled unconstitutional but used last year after some Republican activists took the case to federal court. Huffman said the goal is maps that will get bipartisan support.
“The map’s not going to look like it does now. The map that we have now is not the map that anybody on the commission wanted," Huffman said. "It was a map that was twice removed from a bad Supreme Court decision — was bad, in my opinion.”
Huffman added that there is some wisdom in making sure that there's not a lot of change, so voters don’t get confused. But Russo and Antonio said they won’t vote for any map that benefits Republicans more than the current ones do.
"I don't think that would that that doesn't seem to be even something for consideration. We've already established it's a gerrymandered out of balance map," Antonio said.
Russo added, "So the answer is we would not vote for it."
Miller and Turcer said if the panel wants maps they can enact right now, there are some that were drawn by citizens and by the outside mapmakers who were hired by the commission last year.
DeWine has set the next meeting of the Ohio Redistricting Commission for Friday at 8 a.m., but says if there’s no agreement on co-chairs by 5 p.m. Thursday, that Friday session is canceled.