COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A compromise between state lawmakers and voting rights advocates over how Ohio draws its congressional maps is headed to the May ballot after clearing the state Legislature on Tuesday.
The constitutional amendment is aimed at curbing gerrymandering, the manipulation of district boundaries for political advantage, amid national concern that the current districts are contributing to partisanship, gridlock and incivility in Washington.
The deal emerged from marathon talks among Democrats, Republicans and voter advocacy groups, clearing the Republican-controlled Senate in a unanimous vote on Monday. It ran into some opposition in the House on Tuesday, where state Rep. Alicia Reece, a Cincinnati Democrat, expressed exasperation that a single line stating that voting is Ohioans’ constitutional right was excluded.
Reece, who is black, said 100,000 Ohioans petitioned for the wording. “It’s the first time ever that African-Americans have petitioned this (Ohio) state government and they’re ignored, thrown to the back,” she said.
Others, including Republican House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger and Democratic state Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a candidate for secretary of state, praised it as the bipartisan compromise Ohioans have been awaiting for decades.
“I’m proud of this compromise,” Rosenberger said in an unusual floor speech. “I’m proud of the example we’ve been able to show not only to 11 million Ohioans but to our nation as a whole.” He urged a unanimous vote like the Senate’s, but members delivered one of 83-10.
Compared with the current system, the proposal would reduce how many counties are split into multiple districts, allowing only about one-fourth of Ohio’s 88 counties to be divided into more than one district.
The proposal also would require support from at least half of the minority party in each chamber to get a 10-year map approved by the Ohio Legislature. If the House and Senate can’t reach such an agreement, the map-making process would move to an existing bipartisan commission. If that were to fail, the majority party eventually could make a shorter-term four-year map under more restrictions.
Ohio State Senator Bob Peterson (R-Washington Court House) praised the passage of the resolution on Tuesday.
“The passage of this resolution showcases government tackling the tough issues and actually working together to pass legislation that is good for Ohioans,” said Peterson. “Redistricting reform is as challenging as it gets. I am proud of the collaborative and bipartisan manner in which this resolution came to be.”
The reform specifies that at least 65 counties will be kept whole and limits how many total county splits can occur, according to Peterson. Also, Cleveland and Cincinnati will remain whole within their districts.
If voters approve the amendment, the coalition of groups known as Fair Districts = Fair Elections wouldn’t go forward with the separate redistricting ballot issue for which it has been gathering signatures to put before voters in November.
“Our line in the sand has always 100 percent been a bipartisan process that prevents favoring one politician over another politician based on party and keeps communities together,” Ohio Environmental Council executive director Heather Taylor-Miesle, a leader of the coalition, told The (Toledo) Blade. “We feel very strongly that this accomplishes all three of those things.”
States must redraw congressional district boundaries every 10 years to align with updated U.S. Census figures, and the job falls to the Ohio Legislature under current law. Republicans have firmly controlled 12 of Ohio’s 16 current congressional seats under the map crafted by the GOP in 2011, and that has fueled calls for a fairer, more bipartisan system.
Democrats, Republicans and voter advocacy groups had agreed that changes are needed but disagreed about what those should be, leading to some heated negotiations during the past week.