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Ohio Redistricting Commission changes course at last minute

This story was originally published by the Springfield News-Sun.

Mar. 29—For the fourth time, the Ohio Redistricting Commission stared down a deadline Monday to approve Statehouse district maps that meet court scrutiny. But Monday evening they were still working toward the court-ordered midnight deadline, after another late surprise.

A sudden proposal by Republicans to change approach Monday night was another twist in a months-long redistricting process that has already caused Ohio General Assembly candidates to be left off the May 3 primary election ballot.

Unlike in previous attempts, the commission this time hired independent consultants to draw maps. The University of Florida's Michael McDonald, a Democrat, and the National Demographic Corporation's Douglas Johnson, a Republican, worked for five days under the watch of a live camera — a shift from previous attempts when maps were largely drawn behind closed doors.

However, at about 5:30 p.m., Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, expressed concern about meeting the deadline with the commission mapmakers. Republicans ordered their staff to simultaneously create backup maps based on ones they previously passed on Feb. 24. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled those maps were unconstitutional because they did not reflect the state's voters and unfairly favored Republicans.

The Supreme Court had ordered the commission to start from scratch.

"We have to do something by the end of today," Huffman said. "The Supreme Court specifically stated in their last order, there will be no extensions ... We need some sort of safety valve here. And you know, if we're not going to land the plane as it's said, it would be nice to have a parachute."

The commission recessed until 9 p.m., planning to restart only three hours before the deadline.

Republicans said their longtime mapmaker Ray DiRossi would work in a separate building, since he is sick, to create another set of maps.

When the commission convened at around 4:30 p.m. on Monday, the two mapmakers said they were still revising their proposal and it would take at least a couple more hours. They provided a working map for Ohio House districts, but not a Senate map. McDonald left at 5 p.m. to catch a flight as agreed upon when he was hired, but said they were close and he trusted Johnson to finish the process.

Democrats accused the Republicans of planning all along to disagree and said their staff will continue to support the hired mapmakers.

"To totally undercut (the independent mapmakers) at this point, number one is I think, again, a slap in the face to Ohio voters and completely disregarding the court order," said Statehouse Minority Leader C. Allison Russo. "And I will tell you that we can work as long as we need to. The court would much rather us work and finish this job, than to again submit another unconstitutional map that is not drawn by the entire commission and or submit nothing."

Russo said this curveball by Republicans is not surprising, saying the process has taken as long as it has due to Republicans' stall and delay tactics.

The commission mapmakers Monday were still considering issues Republicans raised over the weekend and Monday morning regarding not changing incumbents' districts too much and drawing compact districts that don't split municipalities.

Only yesterday did the commission decide how to direct mapmakers on what to do regarding incumbents.

Jen Miller, executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, told the Dayton Daily News the commission should continue the process that they started where the public was able to watch.

"This more transparent bipartisan process created constitutional maps as a great starting point and we should continue in that direction," Miller said. "The idea that DiRossi is holed up in the BWC building harkens back to 2011 when he was in a bunker making maps that were rigged for party outcomes rather than fairly representing Ohioans. And it's inexcusable and unacceptable."

Miller predicted the Republican members of the commission will draw another map that violates the constitution and pass it.

Court involvement

In a separate process, a federal court is weighing whether to order the state to delay early voting for the May 3 primary to give more time to the redistricting process. A lawsuit from Republican activists asked the court to impose the Statehouse maps that the Ohio Supreme Court rejected last month as unconstitutional.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose filed responses to the court's questions Monday. The federal court will convene Wednesday to decide what happens with the primary and could be presented any maps passed Monday as maps the Supreme Court has not yet struck down.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission is made up of five Republicans and two Democrats. The Republican members are Gov. Mike DeWine, Speaker of the House Bob Cupp, Senate President Matt Huffman, Auditor Keith Faber and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. The Democrats are Sen. Vernon Sykes and Statehouse Minority Leader C. Allison Russo.

If at least two Republicans and both Democrats on the commission pass district maps, they will last 10 years. But if only the Republicans pass maps, they will last for four years.