Ohio redistricting plans continue to vex state leaders, could go to referendum

Posted on: November 15th, 2011 by David S. Lewis No Comments

The fight over re-mapping Ohio’s congressional districts has become a savage partisan battleground in Columbus, and could even result in a referendum that would have federal courts drawing the lines for lawmakers unable to compromise.

Due to decreased population growth over the last decade, Ohio must lose two congressional districts.

In legislative sessions that range from plaintive to snarling (and including some mild profanity), Democrats in Ohio’s General Assembly have locked horns with the Republican majority over a map they call “ridiculous.”

The redistricting plan has even caused two Democratic legislators to move, in an effort to stay in office.

The map, signed into law as House Bill 319, provides Republicans with 12 strongly-conservative districts and Democrats only four, in a state with nearly equal numbers of both parties and a reputation for swinging between the two. It gerrymanders for the GOP into downtown business districts, and creates the new, snake-like 9th District, a narrow band that nearly spans Lake Erie’s Ohio shore, from Toledo to Akron, prompting Cleveland-area comedian Mike Polk to joke that its only residents are people who either “live in a rest stop along I-90 or in a f***ing lighthouse.”

Republicans, who have enjoyed an overwhelming majority since the 2010 election, have found their most ambitious legislative achievements blocked by a provision in Ohio’s constitution that allows Ohioans to veto unpopular laws with ballot referendums, such was the case last week with Issue 2, a referendum on the anti-collective-bargaining law Senate Bill 5, and House Bill 194, which opponents called the “voter suppression bill” and won’t go into effect pending the result of the 2012 referendum.

Now, in a bizarre twist of Ohio jurisprudence, the same thing could happen with the redistricting bill –- in spite of Republican efforts to thwart exactly that possibility. Written in with a referendum-proof appropriations clause, Republican strategists thought they had insulated their map from citizen veto. Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted followed suit, rejecting the initial petition gathered by Democratic activists.

“House Bill 319, as passed by the Ohio General Assembly and signed by the Governor, contained an appropriation and took effect immediately,” he wrote in a statement released October 12. “It is therefore not subject to referendum.”

But the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that, while the appropriations element of the bill was safe, the map was indeed subject to referendum, and signatures may be gathered to achieve that.

Democrats offered a map of their own that included six staunchly Republican districts and four likely to remain Democratic, with another six districts that skew Republican but could generate competitive races; that proposal was thrown out by Ohio Speaker of the House William Batchelder (R-Medina) in favor of beginning debate on new bill, as he said the old bill had run out of time.

No deal could mean non-legislative compromise. While legislators are making medicine behind closed doors, a failure could have consequences both parties would consider undesirable.

“Most likely this would go to the courts, probably a federal district court that would have to make a decision regarding how we elect representatives,” said Herb Asher, Ph. D and professor emeritus with The Ohio State University’s political science department. He said the courts could appoint a “master,” someone with expertise in drawing up congressional districts.

“My guess is both political parties would not like that system, because the master would not be focused on protecting incumbents,” said Asher. “These could be districts that Democratic and Republican incumbents would not like.”

The duration of such court-drawn districts is also uncertain.

“It’s a little premature to say whether it would be a remedy the courts would order for only one election or for the next decade; you know, the next five elections,” said Donald McTigue, a Columbus lawyer who specializes in election and campaign-finance law, in an interview.  “I could see the courts choosing to wait, given that the people will already have a chance to make that decision next November, if the referendum goes through.”

However, it seems as though Democrats would rather work out a deal.

“We continue to welcome Statehouse Republicans to engage in a compromise. If a map is adopted that is fair, that is competitive, that keeps together like communities and that protects minority representation, we will end our petition drive,” said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, in a release.  “After all, our volunteers deserve the break – and all Ohioans deserve fair representation in Congress.”

Seth Bringman, communications director for the Ohio Democratic Party, agreed with his boss: He said a deal was preferable to seeing the bill’s fate decided in a November duel.

“We would like to see a legislative compromise so it doesn’t get to that point,” he said* in an interview with The American Independent.  “We would like to see the Republicans support one that that keeps ‘like’ communities together and protects minority representation, and if Republicans can support such a map, than the legislative and legal process can end and Ohio can have fair representation – but if that outcome is not achieved, then the Ohio Democratic Party will continue to collect signatures to qualify for a referendum.”

Bringman complained the process was opaque from square one.

“These unfair maps were rushed through in just 48 hours, not shown to the public, not shown to Democrats, and that process was very unfair,” he said.  “And because we as Democrats pursued our options to take this map to a referendum, we are actually having a debate, and bipartisan discussion as to what a fair map should look like.  So our ultimate goal is that fair map, that’s competitive and keeps together like communities and protects minority representation.  We think having that debate and achieving a map that fairly represents [the state], is a positive route to take, for the voters of Ohio.”

Bringman also said that the referendum strategy had not been discussed until the GOP revealed its map.

“It was upon seeing this ridiculous gerrymandered map that discussion of a referendum first began,” he said. “If Democrats and the general public had been included in the redistricting process, you would have seen compromise, and we would have today a much fairer map and Democrats would not be pursuing a referendum, but as was the case with SB5 and as was the case with the voter suppression bill, we believe that this map defied the will of the people of Ohio, and that the people should have a voice in the process.”

Too close to the edge?

“One way or another, we will elect members of the U.S. House,” said Asher, on whether playing too close to the edge could result in districts not being prepared in time. “The real question is who’s going to end up drawing the districts. I think there is maybe a little brinkmanship going on here; I think the Republicans are waiting to see how successful the drive to gather signatures for the referendum is going.”

According to State Senator William Seitz (R-Cincinnati), that is definitely part of it.

“We’ll see if they are able to pull that off or not,” he told The American Independent in an interview. “The problem is very simple: we went from 18 seats to 16 seats, so it’s like musical chairs.”

Seitz said he voted for the first map because it satisfied all the requirements of a constitutional legal reapportionment: the number of districts was reduced, the map met the Voting Rights Act standards for minority representation and the number of people in each district was equal –- all required by law.

“So I favored the first map, because it hit all three of those bogies together,” he said, adding, “It pit two incumbent Republicans [against each other] and two incumbent Democrats against each other, which also seemed fair.  That’s why I voted for it.”

Seitz said he would be in favor of another improved map as well, and hoped for a compromise, calling a map drawn by the courts “the worst case scenario.”

“Failing [a compromise], I think we are in for a very long climate of uncertainty as to what our congressional lines will be, and whether you are a Republican or Democrat, that can’t be in the best interest of the people of Ohio,” said Seitz, who also believes too many referendums would undermine voters’ confidence in lawmakers.

“To my friends on the other side of the aisle, I would caution them: you can’t take everything to referendum without causing appreciable damage to the state,” he said.  “These things are expensive, time-consuming, and make it seems as thoughOhio is unable to govern through the legislative process. As much fun as it may be to take significant legislation to referendum, you’ve got to think of the countervailing damage this causes to people’s confidence in the legislative process.

“Let’s just look at SB5: by the time it’s all said and done, I’d bet you a Krispy Kreme that this thing cost $50 million, and the ad men and pollsters got rich while the rest of us still languish in the throes of a deep recession.”

Drastic times

Regardless of fault, the clock is ticking for both parties to strike a deal to avoid having the task of redistricting taken from their hands, which could make Ohio politically unpredictable.

“The other thing we are trying to avoid is having two separate primaries, a $15 million expense, which folks would just as soon avoid, if possible,” said Seitz.  “I’m told that, if something doesn’t happen this week, due to the various timelines extant, than we are almost obligated to have a two-date primary, or to push it back. I think both for political reasons and the expense we wouldn’t want to do that.

“If the primary is moved back to June, we wouldn’t have the same effect on the presidential elections.”

National influence aside, Ohioans will elect members of Congress, but that could take on a strange shape, especially for incumbents up for re-election in 2012.

“There is that threat out there, that if the Legislature doesn’t resolve it, someone else will have to resolve it,” said Asher, noting that, without a compromise, even more drastic plans could be implemented.

“Could you conceivably elect people ‘at-large’?” he asked.  “Yes, I suppose you could. Basically, the entire state of Ohio is one large congressional district, and you could have people voting from all over the state on representatives.

“Then you could really get into it,” he said.

*Update: Quotes from Mr. Bringman were clarified and amended in this story. We apologize for any confusion.

Photo: Flickr/samantha celera

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