Ohio Redistricting Commission descends into chaos and dysfunction on first day back

September 13, 2023 2:25 pm

The members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission are sworn in by Gov. Mike DeWine on Wednesday. Left to right: State Rep. Jeff LaRe, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Auditor of State Keith Faber, DeWine, Senate Majority Floor Leader Rob McColley, House Minority Leader Allison Russo and Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio. (Photo by Susan Tebben, OCJ.)

If Ohio politicians planned to show exactly why they deserve to be kicked out of the redistricting process entirely, they couldn’t have done a better job than the shameful display they put on Wednesday morning: They immediately descended into chaos and dysfunction after waiting more than 16 months to begin the process of drawing new Ohio House and Senate maps.

The meeting was supposed to be “organizational,” and they failed to meet even that low bar, unable to name co-chairs of the commission that will decide on the districts that will shape Ohio’s General Assembly starting in 2025.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose says a deadline of Sept. 22 should be the goal for the commission to adopt new maps, though he puts the drop-dead deadline as Oct. 23.

The commission last met on May 5, 2022. Their delay, likely intentional, left a nine-day window until LaRose’s self-imposed deadline. And now they just wasted two of those days.

They came to order Wednesday morning to take their oaths, with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine then announcing that they had been unable to name co-chairs and would recess until 8 a.m. Friday morning.

If they do not come up with a plan for co-chairs by Thursday at 5 p.m., DeWine said, the Friday morning meeting will be cancelled as well.

My suspicion about the dysfunction Ohioans witnessed Wednesday morning is related to what I mentioned in my column last Thursday:

Lima Republican Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman is term-limited in his chamber, and he’s said he wants to run for the Ohio House in 2024 and “maybe, someday” try to be speaker. Current Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens, a Kitts Hill Republican, won the role after a group of 22 Ohio House Republicans voted with 32 Democrats to elect him to the position. So both Huffman and Stephens will have a lot riding on how the Ohio House map turns out, and who ends up with control over another gerrymandered Republican supermajority as speaker in January 2025.

Huffman has Napoleon Republican state Sen. Rob McColley representing the Senate on the commission, and Stephens has Violet Township state Rep. Jeff LaRe — who was part of the coalition that voted him speaker — representing the House on the commission.

My guess is that the Ohio House GOP and Ohio Senate GOP are wrestling for the co-chairmanship because both Stephens and Huffman want to be House Speaker in 2025.

The Democratic side also didn’t name their selection for co-chair, but indicated that’s because they want to know which chamber Republicans select before they make their own choice between Democratic Senate Leader Nickie Antonio and Democratic House Leader Allison Russo for the sake of balance.

So what we are seeing — again, as I predicted — is Ohio Republican politicians playing power politics at the expense of the people.

Instead of getting started early this year, and providing an open, transparent, public process with plenty of time for citizen input and feedback, we see a back-room political slugfest.

The seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission includes a member from each party from each chamber at the Statehouse taking up four positions, and the Ohio governor, secretary of state, and auditor, taking the remaining three. With Ohio’s current elected officials, this means Ohio Republicans have five members on the commission, and Democrats have two.

In order to pass long-term maps, the commission must have bipartisan agreement, but a partisan majority is able to force through four-year maps if bipartisan agreement cannot be reached.

During 2021-2022, Republicans on the commission passed five partisan maps, each of which were shot down as unconstitutionally gerrymandered by a bipartisan majority on the Ohio Supreme Court, while swing-vote Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor still sat on the court.

An anti-abortion lobbyist sued to bring the case to federal court, where a split decision led to Ohio voters being forced to cast ballots under unconstitutional maps in 2022. The important thing to remember about the federal court’s decision is that they never said that Ohio’s current Statehouse maps were not gerrymandered, just that Ohio would be made to use them because Republicans had successfully run out the clock and it was too close to the election to do anything else. So that’s why they are back at the drawing board now.

O’Connor was prevented from running for reelection in 2022 due to age, and last year a new right-wing majority with no swing vote won control over the state high court.

This means that if Republicans on the commission pass partisan maps again, they are very likely to be rubber-stamped by the partisan court regardless of whether they are gerrymandered the same or worse than our current Ohio House and Senate maps.

The only real battle is how Huffman and Stephens negotiate carving up the House districts to their own advantage regarding potential future speakership. Even if Stephens tried to go for a bipartisan deal again, he’d need at least one other Republican to go along with himself and the two Democrats. Think about the politics and odds on that. McColley, LaRose, and Auditor Keith Faber are out, no question, and DeWine is not one to break rank in principled stance. He could extract some pounds of policy flesh, but the costs politically make that type of horse-trading highly unlikely.

As Republican politicians on the commission play games, waste everybody’s time, run out the clock, box out the public, and carry on this pitiful political charade, a group of citizens led by O’Connor, former Republican Attorney General Betty Montgomery, and former Democratic Ohio Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown, are working to bring a proposed amendment to Ohio voters in 2024 that would kick the politicians on the Ohio Redistricting Commission to the curb in favor of a 15-member Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission.

Add Wednesday’s debacle to the mountain of evidence that these politicians have no interest in creating fair, competitive, representative maps, and have no business being in charge of redistricting in the state of Ohio. They are unwilling to put the people first over their personal interests and ambition.

They are making an absolute joke of themselves and our state government, and Ohio voters deserve so much better.



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David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief and Columnist David DeWitt has been covering government, politics, and policy in Ohio since 2007, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt