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Michigan — yes, Michigan — may hold the solution to Ohio's future redistricting problems

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Posted at 6:56 PM, Mar 21, 2022

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio and Michigan have one of the most famous state rivalries across the country, but some advocates are saying that state up north gets one thing right: redistricting.

The chaos of Ohio's map-building process has caused turmoil for the May 3 primary, with the Ohio Redistricting Commission (ORC) now working on the fourth set of maps since the previous three were thrown out by the state Supreme Court.

A bipartisan majority on the Court has now rejected the district maps for the third time. The most recent versions of maps were rejected in a 4-3 decision Wednesday night. The Court struck down the Republican-passed legislative maps, citing constitutional violations of favoritism to one party, or gerrymandering.

Democrats on the ORC have requested the Ohio Supreme Court to move the primary election to June 28. The high court responded and ordered the entire Commission to file a response, if any, by 9 a.m. Wednesday, March 23.

This kerfuffle could have been avoided, according to Donald Wiggins Jr. Although Wiggins Jr. is involved with some Ohio nonpartisan nonprofits, like Rank the Vote Ohio, he reached out to News 5 as an independent concerned citizen.

"A mess, a continuation of a mess is what I am seeing," Wiggins Jr. said.

He said something needs to change in the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

"Independent redistricting commissions [are] a given," he added. "It cannot be understated just how important redistricting actually is for representation, trust in government allocation of resources, as well as the future of our nation."

Having politicians decide the districts that directly impact them isn't fair — on either side, he said.

Wiggins Jr. makes a valid argument that many advocates all over the political spectrum are making now, Jonathan Entin, Case Western Reserve University law professor, said.

"It's certainly something that Ohioans who are frustrated by the way this process has worked might want to consider," the professor said.

Both are looking towards Michigan, which found a way to have voters, not politicians, create legislative maps.

"Voters in Michigan, by more than 61%, said they wanted voters, citizens, Michigan residents to draw the maps and not politicians — so that they can have fair maps and prevent gerrymandering," said Edward Woods III, Communications & Outreach Director for the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC).

Michiganders amended the state Constitution with a ballot proposal back in 2018, creating a new commission on redistricting. MICRC is made up of 13 registered voters. Four are Republicans, four are Democrats and five don’t affiliate with either party.

Article XI, Section 1 of the Ohio Constitution created the Ohio Redistricting Commission. It gives complete authority of map-making to the seven commission members.

The ORC is made up of seven politicians: five Republicans, two Democrats. On the Republican side is Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Auditor Keith Faber, Senate President Matt Huffman and Co-Chair and House Speaker Bob Cupp. On the Democrat side is Co-Chair and Sen. Vernon Sykes and Rep. Minority Leader C. Allison Russo.

However, the Ohio Supreme Court cites Huffman and Cupp as the leaders. When striking down the third proposed maps, the Court said that the Republicans went too far to skew the maps in favor of their party, their 74-page document showed. The state still doesn't have the legislative maps that are essential to run an election, with 43 days until the scheduled May 3 primary.

"I don't think it's fair whatsoever," Wiggins Jr. said.

He thinks it is not fair due to politicians being on the Commission, but also added the system directly negatively impacts the growing number of Independents in the state.

With an independent redistricting commission, he thinks many of the problems the current ORC is facing would be non-existent. However, there are a couple of things that might make this a long shot, Entin said.

"It's a pretty heavy lift to get a constitutional amendment, particularly if you don't get buy-in from both parties," he said. "We had that with the amendments for the legislative districts and the congressional districts leading up to this cycle."

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He doesn't know whether Ohio would have bipartisan interest for another change, even though state Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, in the first redistricting case, suggested considering a commission like what was adopted in Michigan.

"The second question has to do with at least with congressional redistricting," the professor said. "Several Supreme Court justices have suggested that the elections clause of the U.S. Constitution does not allow for anybody other than the state legislature to make congressional district maps.

"Now that's not a majority of the Court, but if a majority of the Court went down that path, then all bets are off. But if the Supreme Court accepted this so-called 'Independent State Legislature Doctrine,' then the idea of independent commissions would be impermissible."

But for that matter, the mechanism that Ohio has now, where the congressional district maps are to be drawn by the ORC, might also be problematic because the Commission is not the state legislature, even though there are some members of the Legislature on it, he added. So, the state is really in a kind of uncertain place right now.

Michigan wasn't perfect. There was some controversy over the provision that excluded elected officials and their close relatives from membership on the commission.

"No matter how you do it, somebody is going to be unhappy precisely because the political stakes are so high," Entin said. "There's no perfect system."

Even though developing a whole new commission made up of citizens would require a constitutional amendment, Ohio may be able to utilize some aspects of the independent system this year.

"The Commission is apparently now talking about working across party lines," he said. "The folks who put together the system that we have now — that's what they had in mind from the beginning. But that's not the way it worked out."

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Right now, the ORC is debating if they will have neutral third-party map makers come in and work with the group. Wiggins Jr. said this could be the start of a bipartisan collaboration.

"There is an opportunity for individuals to come together, to set aside our differences and say, 'let's make sure that we have a process that is equitable, that is proportional and that actually allows us to build a table of humanity for all of our brothers, sisters and all those in-between.'"

Even if an amendment is proposed, it probably wouldn’t be able to take effect until after the 2030 census, Entin added. Until then, he hopes the commission will find a way to work together.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.