Ohio Secretary of State says redistricting urgent after year of inaction

The last time the ORC met for official business regarding the Statehouse districts was May 5, 2022. 

By: - September 1, 2023 4:55 am

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose talks to reporters. (Photo by Susan Tebben, OCJ.)

It’s been more than a year since the Ohio Redistricting Commission met to adopt a Statehouse redistricting map.

But on Aug. 30, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said the work urgently needs to be finished by the end of September.

In a letter to Gov. Mike DeWine and other members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission, along with House Speaker Jason Stephens and Senate President Matt Huffman, LaRose warned of a potential “conflict with the statutory requirements of election administration” if final maps aren’t approved by Sept. 22.

The state elections chief, who is also a member of the commission, came to the date after back-dating deadlines for the election, including the Dec. 20 deadline for candidates to file for a 2024 partisan primary.

Citing the Ohio Constitution, LaRose said General Assembly candidates have 30 days from the filing of a new district map with the Secretary of State’s Office to move into a new district.

“That is not, however, our deadline,” LaRose wrote in the letter. “Once new House and Senate maps are completed, the General Assembly must provide to my office updated legal descriptions and shape files to accompany each new district.”

Boards of election use that data to reprogram their systems and update voter registrations. With a two-week timeline for reprogramming, LaRose told commission members the “latest possible date by which we must provide the boards with the new map information” is Nov. 6.

Adding in two weeks of time for the GA staff to put together the descriptions and district shape files, plus time for potential litigation, the secretary of state said Oct. 23 would be “the latest possible date for the commission to enact a new district plan.”

To give even more breathing room, LaRose said a deadline of Sept. 22 should be the goal for the commission to adopt maps.

“While I hope the commission can approve a district plan that avoids litigation, the recent history of this process shows chaos and delay are commonly used tactics,” LaRose wrote.

He said he suspects “that will continue to be the interest of some,” specifically those he claimed “seek to both delay Ohio’s March Presidential Primary Election and enact a new constitutional amendment further reforming the redistricting process.”

What LaRose didn’t mention in his letter is the gap of more than a year since the Ohio Redistricting Commission attempted to take action on the unconstitutional maps currently in place for Ohio elections.

Chronic absenteeism

The last time the ORC met for official business regarding the Statehouse districts was May 5, 2022.

At that meeting, state Rep. Jeff LaRe replaced then-House Speaker Bob Cupp as co-chair. He and the rest of the Republican members of the commission, with the exception of Auditor of State Keith Faber, adopted the same map that had already been rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court as unconstitutionally partisan.

As was the case in every other map adoption, litigation followed, and commission members asked the state supreme court to wait until after the 2022 general election to rule on the maps.

The Ohio Supreme Court did not adhere to the suggestion, rejecting the maps at the end of May, which marked the fifth time the Statehouse maps had been shot down by the state’s highest court.

Eventually, the map went to a U.S. District Court three-judge panel, who said in a 2-1 split decision they would order the map to be put in place for the 2022 election if no other map was passed.

The maps have been in place ever since are the ones adopted in May 2022, implemented by the federal court that said they would do it with the promise that the commission would solve the problem of unconstitutional maps. Even in ruling to put the maps in place, the two judges who stood as the majority said “we chose the best of our bad options.”

“First, no map had won the approval of both the Commission and the Ohio Supreme Court. And second, Map 3 gave the State the most time to fix its own problem. That broke the tie,” the ruling from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stated.

The commission ignored a June deadline set by the Ohio Supreme Court to redo the unconstitutional Statehouse maps, and LaRe even said no time limit was given for the commission to meet again, going on to say “the (state) constitution does not empower the court with the authority to tell the commission when it must do that.”

At that time, he blamed logistical problems and the upcoming November 2022 general election.

“I fully expect the commission to adopt a constitutionally compliant general assembly district plan in advance of the 2024 elections,” LaRe said in a letter to commission members at the time.

The congressional map, which also stands despite being rejected as unconstitutionally partisan by the Ohio Supreme Court for a second time in July 2022, saw a similar lack of action that August, with Cupp calling a court-ordered deadline a “myth.”

The Congressional map has since been tied up in court, and now is back with the Ohio Supreme Court after the U.S. Supreme Court sent it back following its decision rejecting a North Carolina case with similar arguments.

The lack of action didn’t come as a surprise to election experts and researchers, who pointed to the changing of the guard at the Ohio Supreme Court, with Sharon Kennedy – who led the dissent against map rejections before as a justice – taking over the helm as chief justice.

Moving forward?

The commission has now scheduled a meeting for Sept. 13, a date that came with its own set of complications.

But that meeting has been described as “for organizational purposes and to begin the process of drafting a General Assembly redistricting plan,” according to the official notice from the commission.

Democrats have insinuated that with the “reconstitution” of the commission by the governor, it resets the need for three public meetings in the state as part of the constitutional redistricting duties, which would require more scheduling and organization.

It’s unclear whether or not that will happen, or whether it’s possible to hold three meetings before LaRose’s suggested Sept. 22 deadline.

In his most recent letter, the secretary of state seemed to suggest the only way forward if the commission can’t meet the timeline is for the legislature to change the rules again.

“Therefore, absent a judicial order, the General Assembly is solely responsible for altering the statutory election deadlines if the Ohio Redistricting Commission fails to timely adopt a new district plan or litigation renders these deadlines and procedures impossible to meet,” LaRose wrote.



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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 (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.