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Lawmakers Reach Deal With Voter Advocates To Reform Congressional Redistricting

Andy Chow
Ohio Senate convenes for a rare Monday night session to pass a comprehensive plan to reform the congressional redistricting process at the Ohio Statehouse.

A deal has been reached to reform the way Ohio’s Congressional district map is drawn, after weeks of difficult negotiations between Republicans, Democrats, and a citizens group that wanted to put its own plan on the fall ballot. Under the new plan, the map drawing power stays with state lawmakers, but with new rules. 

Most people spent their Sunday watching one play after another as the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots squared off for a big Super Bowl showdown.

But in downtown Akron, a group of Republican and Democratic state lawmakers plus their staff had to skip their normal big game festivities.

“What a great way to spend Super Bowl Sunday, hanging out in a community action center,” said Sen. Matt Huffman (R-Lima).

“What we had was an opportunity to huddle together," added Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko (D-Cleveland)

Huffman and Yuko say they put in the extra hours to come out with a deal to reform Congressional redistricting.

Democratic Senator Vernon Sykes, who represents the Akron area, was in in that meeting too. He says the amendment they hope to send to the May ballot will crack down on gerrymandering, which is the act of drawing district lines to favor one party over another.

“The resolution before us today provides a sufficient, significant amount of checks and balances against the partisan gerrymandering that brought us to our current map,” said Sykes.

As he referenced, Ohio’s current map has 16 congressional districts, 12 of which are occupied by Republicans, who had control over the map making process in 2011. A change in the redistricting process is critical in part because Ohio will likely lose a Congressional seat in the 2020 census.

This new redistricting reform proposal would change that process by creating four rounds of mapmaking. On the first attempt, the map would have to be approved by a three-fifths majority and receive votes from at least 50% of the minority party. The second and third round also require a significant amount of support from the minority party.

If a map still doesn’t get the amount of votes needed then the party in control can move forward by passing a map with just a simple majority vote. But the resolution spells out specific criteria that the party must follow in order to avoid the special tricks of gerrymandering. And that map is only good for four years instead of ten.

Putting pressure on the lawmakers was a coalition of citizens’ groups working to put their own reform proposal on November’s ballot. That includes Heather Taylor-Miesle, who says she’s all for the new plan.

“I think in 2022 you’re gonna see a lot more competitive districts people are not going to be able to take their citizens for granted anymore,” she said.

A provision that helped win over the citizen’s coalition was a requirement that limited how many times a county could be split. In the plan 65 counties could not be split at all, 18 could have one line going through it, and the five largest counties could be split into three different districts.

Taylor-Miesle says this plan will engage both parties, but it won’t favor one party over another and it’ll keep communities together.

The road to this bipartisan plan wasn’t easy. In fact, Sykes says there were times when he seriously had his doubts about reaching a deal with his counterpart, Matt Huffman.

“If I may very affectionately say at some points during the discussion I thought he had lost his mind,” said Sykes.

Huffman and Sykes are not strangers to tough issues. They worked together on state legislative redistricting reform, which was passed by voters in 2015.

Senate President Larry Obhof sees this plan as a step forward to better, more competitive districts in Ohio and says it sends a simple message to whoever’s drawing the maps in the future.

“Get along with your colleagues, cooperate across party lines and if you try to cram down a strictly partisan map you’re not going to be able to do it so learn how to work together,” said Obhof.

The plan must still pass the House which is planning to hold a vote on the resolution on Tuesday. Lawmakers must get it to the secretary of state’s office by the end of the day Wednesday in order to make it on the May ballot.

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