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Analysis: Ohioans could vote on a new redistricting system in 2024. Will Republicans try to thwart it?

two women stand before a color-coded map of ohio
Andy Chow
Ohio Statehouse News Bureau
Voter rights advocates scrutinize the Congressional district map proposed by Republican lawmakers in 2021.

This week, we will find out just how far Ohio Republicans will go to keep their absolute grip on Ohio's legislative map-making process.

The Ohio Ballot Board — controlled by Republicans and chaired by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose — is set to consider a constitutional amendment that voting rights groups want to place on the November 2024 ballot.

The amendment, sponsored by a coalition called Citizens Not Politicians, would take the entire process out of the hands of elected officials — present and past — and would put the authority in the hands of a 15-member commission of Republicans, Democrats and independents.

LaRose, who is busy running for the 2024 U.S. Senate nomination, has made it clear he opposes the plan.

The Ohio Republican Party and the Republican supermajority in the Ohio General Assembly loathe the idea.

RELATED: Why did Democrats on the Ohio Redistricting Commission vote for maps they said were unfair?

After all, gerrymandered maps are at the heart of their power. Without it, they are simply a majority, not a supermajority.

So, what kind of damage might LaRose's ballot board do to the reform movement?

What Citizens Not Politicians worries about most is the ballot board deciding to break up the amendment into two or three separate ballot issues.

Why would that be a problem?

It takes a petition drive to gather the signatures of 413,000 registered voters to place a constitutional amendment on Ohio's ballot, which means that a group would have to get as many as 700,000 signatures to meet the threshold.

Imagine if you had to that on two or three separate ballot issues. The time and expense would be enormous.

"I do approach the ballot board with some trepidation," said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, one of the principal partners in Citizens Not Politicians.

"It's clearly a single subject referendum, and we are hoping the ballot board will leave it that way," Turcer said.

But the ballot board has shown it is "willing to play games and make it harder for initiatives."

The most recent example was in August, when LaRose made changes to the language of the abortion rights amendment on this November's ballot. The changes, abortion rights advocates said, inserted buzz words that could cause some voters to vote no.

a woman with a gray-haired pixie cut gestures while wearing a black top, gray cardigan and a long string of pearls around her neck
Daniel Konik
Ohio Statehouse News Bureau

Retired Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor became persona non grata in her own political party last year when she voted — five times — with the Democratic members of the Ohio Supreme Court to reject GOP district maps, calling them unconstitutional.

She could not run for re-election last year and is now one of the leading advocates for the new system being proposed by Citizens Not Politicians.

"There's nothing we can do about the ballot board at this point," O'Connor said. "All we can do is go in and make our case.

"It would be a real stretch to divide this issue up in any way," the former chief justice said. "It is one amendment, clearly."

RELATED: Ohio's redistricting process was 'doomed to fail,' former chief justice says

The ballot issue would replace two constitutional amendments passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2015 and 2018 — one for state legislative districts, the other for congressional districts.

This set up the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which, these days, has a 5-to-2 Republican majority.

Last year, the Republicans on the commission managed to kick the can down the road after O'Connor and the Democrats time after time rejected their maps, saying they unfairly advantaged Republicans.

They were able to stall until O'Connor was no longer on the court — a victim of Ohio's judicial age limit — until they could get a friendly Ohio Supreme Court that would likely go ahead and sign off on their new maps, as they did last month, passing maps that will last until 2030.

This is why Citizens Not Politicians has such a sense of urgency about getting a new system on the ballot.

One of the most vocal Republican opponents of taking the process out of the hands of politicians is State Rep. Brian Stewart, the Pickaway County legislator who famously authored Issue 1, the proposal on an August 8 special election ballot that would have required constitutional amendments to pass by 60% instead of a simple majority.

Ohio voters, very loudly, said thanks, but no thanks to Stewart's plan.

Now, he accuses O'Connell and Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general under President Obama, of conspiring to control Ohio's redistricting process themselves. Holder heads the National Democratic Redistricting Commission, which is challenging the most recent GOP maps before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Here's what Stewart had to so say in a recent post on X:

"Eric Holder and Maureen O'Connor's 30-page mess of a redistricting amendment create commissioners, consultants, lawyers and full-time bureaucrats — all with mandated pay on the taxpayers' dime. There's nothing 'citizen-led' about it."

But O'Connor said that if she and Holder are working in concert, she didn't get the memo.

"I've never met Eric Holder; I've never spoken to him," O'Connor said. "I'm not sure I would recognize him if he walked in the room.

"He's the boogeyman they've set up," O'Connor said of Holder. "Republicans seem to love setting up these boogeymen. Eric Holder, George Soros, even Barack Obama. It's meaningless."

RELATED: What Michigan can teach Ohio about redistricting

O'Connor said that once this issue gets on the ballot and is approved by voters, she will have no role in implementing the new plan.

"Once this passes, I'm done," O'Connor said. "I won't be part of the process. Mine is a purely volunteer effort."

Organizations such as Common Cause Ohio and the League of Women Voters of Ohio say they are absolutely committed to seeing this process through even if the ballot board splits it into multiple issues.

What Citizens Not Politicians wants is quick action by the ballot board, Turcer said — mainly because early voting in this November's election begins Wednesday.

"We want to be out at the early voting locations and at the polling places on Election Day, gathering signatures,'' Turcer said. "One thing about getting signatures at polling places — they’re going to be real voters."

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.