The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
In committee hearings Wednesday, Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate unveiled their plans for new congressional districts.
In both cases Democrats complained the maps were shared at the eleventh hour, leaving members unable to properly analyze the proposals before them. Procedural votes along partisan lines and unanswered questions about the drafters’ intent seem to presage a bitter fight more likely to produce a lengthy court battle than a 10 year congressional map.
Ohio Republicans have had a 12-4 advantage in congressional districts since the maps were last drawn in 2011, with no congressional seats flipping parties in any election since that time. Ohio lost one district in the 2020 U.S. Census, going from 16 down to 15.
Both the House and Senate GOP maps would incorporate large swaths of Republican territory into Toledo Democratic U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s district effectively rendering it a Republican district. Kaptur said in a statement that fair districts are a foundational requirement of the American Republic, assuring that the voices of all people are able to influence government.
“Lawmakers should not be able to insulate themselves from the views of their constituents through a rigged system of gerrymandering,” she said. “The proposals unveiled today are a clear violation of this most basic principle.”
The House map splits Hamilton, Franklin, Cuyahoga and Summit counties all into three districts. In Summit, one stretches up to Lake Erie communities such as Ashtabula, and another stretches down to the Hocking Hills area of Southeastern Ohio. In Franklin County, the city of Westerville is moved into the district currently occupied by Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, and in Hamilton County, Democratic Cincinnati is slimly connected to the entirety of Republican Warren County.
The Senate map also splits Hamilton, Franklin and Cuyahoga counties into three districts, with Democrats holding the advantage in the city centers and Republicans having the advantage in the respective other two districts including parts of each county. This map also moves a significant portion of Franklin County into Jim Jordan’s district. The Senate GOP map also includes most of Montgomery County, home of Dayton, and Republican Warren County in the same district.
The House proposal
The guiding principle behind the House map appeared to be plausible deniability. North Canton Republican Scott Oelslager delivered pre-drafted remarks describing how his map complied with new constitutional demands, but he balked at almost every question about his proposal.
He affably ducked questions from Democratic members as too “technical”, and acknowledged House staffer Blake Springhetti handled the actual drafting of the map. Speaking after the hearing, he admitted even his remarks weren’t all his own — Springhetti helped come up with those, too.
Pressed by Rep. Tavia Galonski, D-Akron, about whether he’d object to Springhetti testifying about the proposal, Oelslager dodged.
“That’s a decision that will be made by leadership above me and counsel,” he said.
Asked more generally by Rep. Richard Brown, D-Canal Winchester, whether his party is even seeking a ten year map, which would require the support of at least a third of Democrats, Oelslager again deflected.
“That’s actually a decision that I’m not involved with; I have not had any discussions with anybody, and I believe that will be a decision made above my pay grade in this process,” Oelslager said.
Every member of the House leadership team, save the speaker, serves on the Government Oversight committee where Oelslager presented his proposal.
Democrats raised objections early, noting the 300 page substitute amendment and Oelslager’s testimony were posted less than 20 minutes before the committee began. Once the documents were shared, the maps were presented in a format that made rapid analysis difficult.
But Democrats did voice concerns about the most obvious potential problems such as the four counties — Hamilton, Franklin, Cuyahoga and Summit — being split among three different districts. Another district runs from Ohio’s southernmost county along the eastern border all the way past Youngstown in the northeast corner of the state.
Despite sidestepping questions on how borders were determined, Oelslager did share a rundown of partisan performance. He described the breakdown as 8-5-2, where Republicans would have eight safe seats, Democrats would have two and five would be a “toss-up.” That toss up range is broad, though, with the majority party having as much as 55% of the likely vote share and the minority having at least 45%.
But outside observers dispute Oelslager’s analysis. The partisan lean metrics in Dave’s Redistricting App suggest the House Proposal would give Republicans a strong advantage in 9 districts, not 8. Four of the remaining districts would be considered competitive based on a 45-55% split, and two would be safe Democratic seats.
Shortly after the committee, Ohio League of Women Voters executive director Jen Miller criticized a lack of transparency in the process. Without maps available ahead of time, she said, it’s impossible to know how good or bad the lines might be.
“We want to think about voters in all 88 counties and how they’re represented and what they need. We can’t do that yet. It’s going to take us quite some time,” Miller explained. “But we certainly are concerned that we could not get the map in a timely fashion, and we are concerned that we are once again maybe running out the clock. Estimates do look as though it is not partisan balanced, which is one of the things I think voters really wanted.”
The Senate proposals
The Senate Local Government and Elections Committee heard about one map that’s been out since the end of September, and another that made its debut during the committee meeting.
Premiering today was the Senate GOP’s congressional map, presented by state Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon.
“We wanted to be sure that we put out a map that we were comfortable standing behind and that we felt gave us an opportunity with the minority party to meet and discuss that,” McColley said after presenting his map.
McColley said he was the lead on the map “concepts,” but Ray DiRossi, senate budget director and legislative map-drawer, was the one to insert the concepts into mapping software.
The Senate GOP map proposal has six Republican-leaning districts, 2 Democrat-leaning and seven that would be competitive, which McColley also defined as being within the 45-55% range.
Statewide election data and constitutionally required data was used in the maps, however McColley said racial data was skipped in the GOP map, something Republicans were criticized for in the legislative map-drawing process.
DiRossi told the Ohio Redistricting Commission during his presentation of those maps that racial and demographic data was skipped deliberately at the direction of “legislative leaders.”
Criticism of the maps was limited, mostly because of the abrupt timeline in receiving the GOP map, but an overarching look at the maps gave University of Cincinnati politics professor David Niven a look into political strategy, he said.
“It is an astonishing work of defiance of the constitution, an astonishing defiance of voter will,” said Professor David Niven, of the University of Cincinnati.
Niven said the splitting of counties is at times confusing, which he thinks is a political strategy as part of the maps.
“The effect of this is (voter) confusion and dampened representation,” Niven said.
Collin Marozzi of the ACLU of Ohio said he was still reviewing the Senate effort, but from a brief look during the committee meeting, it didn’t surprise him to see Republicans making the decisions they made, but he wanted to hear more about why.
“It’s deliberate choices, they made their choices and I think the people of Ohio deserve to have an explanation as to why they made them, not just the fact that they did or didn’t make them,” Marozzi said.
State Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko and state Sen. Vernon Sykes presented the Senate Democratic Caucus map officially to the commission, with policy advisor Randall Routt jumping in with breakdowns directly from the map.
“As elected leaders, we owe it to our constituents to produce fair maps,” Yuko said. “Let’s work together, and let’s get this mission accomplished.”
The Democratic map came just before the Oct. 1 deadline for the legislature to approve congressional redistricting maps the first time, which blew by without any significant action from either General Assembly body.
The deadline passed, and the process moved to the Ohio Redistricting Commission, on which Sykes sat as co-chair, and their Oct. 31 deadline came and went without any map approval.
In Wednesday’s committee meeting, Routt said the map was “merely a starting proposal” but a proposal they felt complied with not only the Ohio constitution, but the salvaging of communities across Ohio.
In explaining the map, Routt said only 11 counties were split, with the splits only occurring once in each county. No counties were split more than once.
“We attempt to keep communities together in our map, and we think that’s an overriding state objective,” Routt told the committee.
Committee member state Sen. Tina Maharath, D-Canal Winchester, took time to ask if Democratic bill sponsors felt the redistricting process had met expectations. Yuko and Sykes both said no, and Sykes said with no GOP map to consider until Wednesday, it’s been difficult to negotiate a ten-year plan with bipartisan agreement.
“We’re at this third stage of this process and fortunately it looks like today … we’re starting out hopefully with a plan, and maybe we’ll be better able to negotiate a bipartisan deal,” Sykes said.
McColley said concerns about transparency are not necessarily well-placed, and likened the process to creating a piece of legislation, in that some preparatory conversations “don’t happen in the public.”
“Usually there’s a public proposal … and then we’ll have a proposal and a process going forward to work off of, and that’ll inform much of the public dialogue that occurs with this map,” McColley said.
All three maps are the subject of scheduled public hearings Thursday morning in Senate Local Government and Elections and House Government Oversight.