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Ohio's Redistricting Reforms To Avoid Gerrymandering Take Shape In 2021

Ohio's Congressional district map, separated so the outlines of each district can be clearly seen. Former Rep. Mike Curtin (D-Columbus) created the map as an opponent of it.
Karen Kasler
Ohio's Congressional district map

The year 2021 will bring a new mapmaking process for Ohio's state legislative and congressional districts. Voters approved reforms in the past five years to avoid gerrymandering, where districts are drawn to favor one party over another. And voter advocates say the time has come to make sure the process works.

Ohio has been considered a battleground state for decades, having voted for Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and Republicans George W. Bush and Donald Trump. 

But Catherine Turcer with Common Cause Ohio says the current districts for state legislative offices and congressional seats do not reflect a political balance. 

"For many years after our votes have been manipulated, they created districts that leaned Republican or lean Democratic. And what happened is year after year, those gerrymanders were really robust every single year since the maps were drawn in 2011. There have been 12 Republicans elected to go to Congress and four Democrats year after year after year. And that manipulation of our vote is actually ends up being the manipulation of public policy. And so what we want is for all of us to participate in real elections," Turcer says. 

In the Statehouse, Republicans have maintained their 2-1 majority in the Senate and picked up a seat in 2020. And after losing a few seats in the House in 2018, Republicans added a total of three members in the last election.

Every 10 years, Ohio draws new district maps, and in 2015 and 2018, voters approved a new process to prevent gerrymandering.  

That process includes rules the maps must follow such as keeping 65 of Ohio's 88 counties whole, and only letting five counties be split more than twice. Turcer says these rules will stop mapmakers from creating districts that weave in and out of political strongholds that favor one party over another. 

"The maps will be created in a more bipartisan fashion because the Ohio Redistricting Commission will have additional members of the minority party on it. So I think that's important to be aware of. The other thing to be aware of is if the district lines are drawn in ways that violate the rules, well then that map or maps, if it's the Ohio House and the Senate, for example, that can be taken to the Ohio Supreme Court and challenged. And so the rules are embedded in the Ohio Constitution and can go to the Ohio Supreme Court, which at the moment is fairly well balanced," says Turcer.  

The official mapmaking process won't start until the summer, but Jen Miller with the League of Women Voters Ohio says they're mobilizing now to make sure the voices of voters are heard. 

"The League and Common Cause and all of our volunteers who have been fighting gerrymandering for more than half a century are gearing up. We're going to be calling our lawmakers. We're going to be engaging the public so that they're ready to participate as well," says Miller. 

Miller says the new mapmaking process includes better opportunities for citizens to provide their input and for the drawing to be more transparent. 

New Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) was at the forefront of creating the reforms.  But he defends the maps that were made in 2011 and points out that there were state legislative races where a challenger was able to beat an incumbent. However, he says the new rules will help keep the mapmakers accountable.  

"Somebody and maybe a lot of people who knows somebody is going to be unhappy with what these districts look like. They're going to be outraged. It's going to be unfair. It's going to be because, hey, you know, especially when it comes to things like this, you can make everybody happy. And when that happens, everybody, including me, can say, well, this is the way the voters wanted it to be done," Huffman says. 

The new maps will be based on the outcome of the 2020 Census which was taken last year. The results of that will come out in February. Officials will take that census and begin to compile data on how a map can accurately reflect different regions of the state.  

The Congressional maps will be created by state lawmakers with bipartisan approval required. The state legislative districts will be drawn by the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which includes the governor, secretary of state, auditor, 2 Republicans from the House and Senate, and 2 Democrats from the House and Senate.  

The state is expected the Census to show a lag in population growth which could mean Ohio might lose one or even two of its 16 Congressional seats. 

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