After two rejections, is Ohio attorney general slow-walking anti-gerrymandering amendment?

By: - September 27, 2023 5:00 am

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images)

One might think that a movement associated with a former state Supreme Court chief justice could draft a petition summary that passes legal muster. But twice already, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has rejected summaries of a petition to put an anti-gerrymandering amendment on Ohio’s November 2024 ballot.

So far, nobody’s explicitly accusing Yost of deliberately slow-walking approval of the anti-gerrymandering amendment, but frustration is growing — and one advocate of redistricting reform pointed out that further delays can become critical quickly.  

“The slower this goes, there are increasingly serious consequences,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, which supports the amendment.

Ohio’s legislative and congressional districts are highly gerrymandered. While Donald Trump carried the state by less than eight percentage points in 2020, Republicans control 68% of seats in the state House, 78% in the state Senate and 66% of the state’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Ohio voters apparently didn’t want things to be this way. In 2015 and 2018, redistricting amendments to curb extreme partisan gerrymandering in the legislature and Congress both passed with more than 70% of the vote.

But since the 2020 Census, seven sets of maps passed by the Republican-dominated Redistricting Commission have been rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court. By effectively running out the clock, the districts rejected by the court are still in effect.

Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio Maureen O’Connor. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Former Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, voted with the court’s three Democrats to reject the GOP-drawn maps, until she was forced to retire because of her age in 2022. Now she’s working with the group Citizens Not Politicians to put another constitutional amendment on the ballot.

She says this one will close loopholes by creating a truly independent redistricting commission made of up of citizens that won’t place a partisan thumb on the scales. 

It would ban partisan gerrymanders and create a 15-member commission of Republicans, Democrats and independents to draw the lines. Current and former officeholders, lobbyists and large donors would be banned from sitting on it. 

Despite the claims made by GOP leaders during their August attempt to restrict citizen access to the process, voter-initiated amendments to the Ohio Constitution are anything but easy. 

First activists have to draft a proposed amendment and a summary of it, gather 1,000 signatures from registered voters and submit them to the attorney general. If the Ohio Attorney General approves the petition summary as accurate, then they have to gather more than 400,000 signatures from registered voters — with a percentage coming from each of 44 of the state’s 88 counties. 

And, because many signatures are typically disqualified, proponents try to gather hundreds of thousands more than the minimum. It’s an intensive, costly, time-sensitive process.

Two petition summary rejections and a third submission in waiting

So far, Citizens Not Politicians has twice had its petition summaries rejected.

On Aug. 23, Attorney General Yost rejected the first summary, citing nine instances of “omissions and misstatements.” 

For example, the summary said that a bipartisan panel appointing commissioners would hire a professional search firm to “assist” it. But the proposed amendment says that the consulting firm would “solicit applications for commissioner, screen and provide information about applicants, check references, and otherwise facilitate the application review and applicant interview process.”

The summary was, well, too summary, Yost ruled.

“The summary thus diminishes the actual role of the search firm in the application process, by merely stating the search firm would ‘assist’ the panel,” the ruling said.

Then after listing specific shortcomings the attorney general found in the first summary, the letter made a statement that made it seem all but certain that a second attempt would fail as well.

“The above instances are just a few examples of the summary’s omissions and misstatements,” it said.

A spokeswoman for Yost didn’t respond when asked why the attorney general didn’t specify the other problems he found with the petition summary. She also didn’t respond to a question asking whether Yost, who is eyeing a run for governor, believes extreme partisan gerrymandering is a problem in the United States.

Citizens Not Politicians quickly gathered another 1,000 signatures and submitted a new summary. On Sept. 14, Yost rejected that as well, but this time he cited only one deficiency.

The summary didn’t explain that the proposed amendment lays out a specific method of determining the party affiliation of redistricting commission members, while the amendment would leave it to the GOP-controlled Ohio Ballot Board to determine the affiliations of members of the panel that would select those commissioners, Yost wrote.

“To be clear, a fair and truthful summary should articulate this distinction so that a signer can understand the Amendment’s true meaning and effect,” Yost’s letter said. “Otherwise, the summary misleads a signer into misbelieving that party affiliation is judged consistently and with the same objective criteria when it is not.”

Citizens Not Politicians submitted a third version of the summary language last Friday and Yost has until Oct. 2 to accept or reject it. The group was less than pleased with the latest ruling.

“We are disappointed and frustrated that the Attorney General has chosen to reject our petition summary for a second time,” its spokesman, Chris Davey, said in a statement. “We adjusted our summary language as the Attorney General requested on the first submission, and we know our summary language was accurate.”

The impacts of delays

Advocates of the gerrymandering amendment might seem like they have a long time to get their ducks in a row, but time can grow short quickly and delays can be disastrous for them.

It’s not perfectly analogous, but Yost played a role in another delay — one that helped kill an attempt to repeal the corruptly passed House Bill 6. That’s the bribery scheme in which Akron-based FirstEnergy paid more than $60 million and got a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout in return. Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, is now serving a 20-year prison term for his role in the scandal, but somehow, HB 6 remains on the books

The law was so objectionable that as soon as it passed in 2019, a strong effort at a voter-initiated repeal was announced. 

Leaders of the attempted repeal had 90 days after the law’s enrollment to gather at least as many valid signatures as 6% of the number who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election — about 265,000 in 2019. But first, they had to submit a summary of the ballot language along with 1,000 valid signatures for review by the attorney general and the Ballot Board.

Yost rejected the first summary that was submitted and by the time a second was approved — along with another batch of 1,000 signatures — the repeal team had only 54 days left of the original 90 to submit more than a quarter-million valid signatures.

With 40% of the clock expired — and with FirstEnergy spending more than $30 million on a brutal, dishonest campaign to thwart the repeal — time ran out before circulators could gather enough signatures to get it on the ballot.

Anti-gerrymandering protest. (Photo by Olivier Douliery, Getty Images.)

The timetable for the anti-gerrymandering isn’t nearly that compressed, but each passing week is crucial, Turcer, of Common Cause Ohio, said. 

“It could be that this is standard operating procedure,” she said of the two rejections so far. “But it could slow things down so much that they can’t collect signatures during early voting and Election Day.”

She was referring to Nov. 7, when a closely watched abortion rights amendment is expected to draw many Ohioians to the polls. In-person early voting starts Oct. 11 — just 22 days away.

Turcer explained that early voting and Election Day are important for petition circulators because that’s when registered voters — the group eligible to sign petitions — are gathered at county boards of election during early voting and at polling places on Election Day. 

Assuming Yost approves the summary language on Oct. 2, it still has to be approved by the Ballot Board and petition forms need to be printed.

“Citizen initiatives are incredibly challenging,” Turcer said. “But they’re much harder if you have a compressed time period.”

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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.

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