Lawmakers approve candidate filing tweaks amid redistricting uncertainty

By: and - January 27, 2022 3:45 am

The Ohio Statehouse. Photo by Tyler Buchanan, Ohio Capital Journal.

Ohio’s primary election, slated for May 3, is right around the corner. But Ohio has a problem. Roughly three months from election day, there’s still no certainty when it comes to boundaries for state or congressional districts.

Wednesday, Ohio Senators offered their plan for candidates seeking office. Shortly after Senate passage, the House concurred. The bill pushes the filing deadline for Congressional seats to March 4, but Ohio House and Senate candidates will still have to get their nominating petitions in by Feb. 2 — just one week away. They won’t necessarily have to start from scratch gathering signatures, though. So long as the new district — whatever shape it eventually takes — includes part of the county where a signer resides, that signature will still count.

During a Local Government and Elections committee hearing, majority legal counsel Frank Strigari explained the approach by describing a hypothetical district.

“It included, let’s just say a portion of Franklin County,” he explained. “In order for that signature to count, the newly constructed district that would be effective would need to include a portion of Franklin County.”

The measure also gives the secretary of state flexibility to move administrative deadlines, and it allows candidates to amend their filing if, for instance, they’re drawn into a different district and have to move to be eligible. Lawmakers also included an emergency clause so that changes take effect immediately.

Democrats questioned maintaining the Feb. 2 filing deadline for legislative races, arguing that potential candidates may decide they want to run after the maps are finalized. The Ohio Redistricting Commission just approved new legislative boundaries, but like the previous plan, the latest maps passed along party lines and appear to give Republicans an advantage. Voting rights groups are again challenging the maps in court.

Senators fast-tracked the changes, tacking them onto an unrelated measure that gives victims of domestic violence or human trafficking the right to make their residential address confidential. The final amendment, shared with committee members a little after noon, was approved unanimously by the committee, and sent straight to the Senate floor. The chamber approved measure less than two hours later. Sen. Teresa Gavarone, R-Huron, who is running for Congress herself, shepherded the measure through committee and onto the Senate floor.

Sen. Tina Maharath, D-Canal Winchester, offered tempered support for the measure. She echoed Gavarone’s arguments for the underlying confidentiality provisions and argued it’s “only fair” to give candidates flexibility amid uncertainty about the maps.

“However, I am a bit concerned that this bill does not address the constitutional requirements that a candidate be allowed 30 days before the filing deadline to move in a district,” Maharath said. “Since the district maps were released less than 30 days before the filing deadline which still remains next week, it’s impossible to comply with the rules as it stands currently.”

She said that puts potential candidates at a disadvantage, but given the circumstances lawmakers needed to intervene.

The underlying House measure passed unanimously last February, and after the Senate vote, the House quickly approved the amended measure.

In addition to the bill passed today, two Democrats are trying to get not just the filing deadline but the election date itself moved. 

House Bill 544 would move the primary election to the beginning of June, which would push back the filing deadline to the original date of the primary, May 4. 

Assistant House Minority Leader Thomas West and state Rep. Lisa Sobecki, D-Toledo, recently introduced the bill in an attempt to allow Ohioans to research their districts as they potentially change, and change again. 

The bill, much like the Senate bill that passed on Wednesday, is in response to redistricting efforts still ongoing in the Ohio Supreme Court and in the legislature.

“We don’t even know what the courts going to do, how long it’s going to take,” West told the OCJ.

The state’s highest court rejected both the legislative maps approved by the Ohio Redistricting Commission in September, and the congressional maps approved by the legislature in November. The ORC had 10 days to redraw maps, which were approved last Saturday, but have been objected to by all three groups who originally challenged the maps.

West said he’s talked to Secretary of State Frank LaRose about moving the elections, and while LaRose “didn’t give (West) a yes or no,” West said moving the days would give them time to complete administrative and logistic tasks needed to hold the election.

LaRose’s office declined to comment on the bill, but LaRose himself told the Ohio Redistricting Commission that he’d asked for the authority granted in the Senate bill to have flexibility to complete election tasks as the court decides on legislative and congressional district maps.

Sobecki said she’d spoken to local boards of election employees in the state who supported the change and give them the time they needed.

“Then they would know what the maps would be and they’d be able to certify petitions, and they would be able to answer questions,” Sobecki said.

Both West and Sobecki agree that the problems with the election could have been solved had the the Republican majority worked to get to bipartisan agreement on maps and constitutional agreement in district lines.

“We’re fixing something that (the GOP) would have already fixed if they had passed fair maps,” West said. 

Neither of the state representatives have received any information on starting the congressional map-making process again, they said.

The legislature has less than a month to redraw congressional districts. If they can’t come to an agreement within that time, the Ohio Supreme Court said the process goes back to the Ohio Redistricting Commission, who will then have another 30 days to approve maps and send them back for court review.

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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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