COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — In the face of multiple district maps ruled unconstitutional, a group led by two former Ohio Supreme Court justices is seeking to end partisan gerrymandering in the state once and for all.
The group Citizens Not Politicians took the first step Monday to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot overhauling how Ohio’s congressional and state electoral maps are drawn. An independent commission would replace the bipartisan redistricting commission currently controlled by Republican officials – a commission that submitted about half a dozen maps the Ohio Supreme Court found to be unconstitutionally deferential to Republican candidates.
“This proposal would end gerrymandering by empowering citizens, not politicians, to draw fair districts using an open and independent process,” Maureen O’Connor, former chief justice of the state supreme court, said in a statement.
The proposed amendment, which was filed with the attorney general’s office on Monday, would create a 15-member commission of five Democrats, five Republicans and five independent members. People with significant political influence in the past six years – including former and current elected officials, former campaign workers, registered lobbyists and large political donors – would be barred from serving on the commission.
Instead, the commission would represent a “cross-section” of Ohio’s geographic regions and demographic characteristics. Like the current commission, the independent commission would be tasked with drawing politically fair maps, fairness enforced by the Ohio Supreme Court’s ability to have maps redrawn.
The current redistricting commission is made of two elected officials from each party and the governor, secretary of state and auditor. Ohioans overwhelmingly voted to create the bipartisan commission for state legislative races in 2015, followed by 75% of voters in 2018 approving the commission’s drawing of U.S. congressional districts, to combat partisan bias in map drawing. As in all states, Ohio must go through a redistricting process every decade, following the release of the U.S. Census.
Unlike federal gerrymandering laws, Ohio law prohibits the commission from drawing maps that unduly favor one political party. That requirement, however, did not stop the Republican-dominated redistricting commission from putting forth a handful of maps the Ohio Supreme Court found improperly diluted Democrat voting power.
After each court decision, the redistricting commission was ordered to draw new maps. In the absence of a fairly drawn district map and with May 2022 primaries inching closer, a panel of federal judges ordered the implementation of unconstitutional maps in order to run the election.
“Clearly, these folks are drunk on power, and what do you do with drunks? You take away their keys,” Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said. “And I think it’s really important to realize that we have voted on unconstitutional gerrymandered maps, and voters deserve better.”
To avoid the future implementation of unconstitutionally partisan maps, the independent redistricting commission amendment would grant the Ohio Supreme Court the authority to order special masters to edit maps deemed in violation, if the commission fails to do so itself.
“This plan locks politicians and lobbyists out of what’s now a self-interested backroom, and instead requires decisions to be made in an open process conducted by Ohio citizens,” former Ohio Supreme Court justice Yvette McGee Brown said. “The politicians who control the current redistricting commission have ignored the will of Ohioans who want a fair and honest system. The only way to get a fair outcome for Ohioans is to remove political insiders from the process.”
The proposed amendment would reinforce Ohio’s prohibition on partisan gerrymandering by requiring that the proportion of districts favoring a political party shall fall within 3% from the statewide partisan preferences of Ohio voters, unless mathematically impossible. Other factors the independent commission would consider include preserving communities of interest and counting incarcerated people by their most recent residence before incarceration.
“What we’re saying is: OK, we went through a cycle. What we found out is elected officials could not abide by the rules in place,” Turcer said. “We’ve lost faith in them as voters, and that means we need to take the mapmaking away from them and put citizens in charge.”
The proposed amendment has sparked varying responses from the Republican lawmakers it seeks to bypass.
A spokesperson for Gov. Mike DeWine — who serves on the redistricting commission — said DeWine was “open” to the idea of an independent redistricting commission, but “the devil is in the details.”
A spokesperson for the Ohio House Republican Caucus called the proposal an “overreach and seemingly unworkable,” pointing to previous voter-approved redistricting reform as a sufficient guide for the current redistricting commission. An Ohio Senate Republican Caucus spokesperson echoed the sentiment, calling independent commissions “puppets of partisan special interest groups.”
“So-called citizen-led commissions are anything but that,” the Senate Republican spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who also serves on the redistricting commission, declined to comment. Ohio Auditor Keith Faber’s office said Faber was “aware” of the amendment proposal and awaits the attorney general’s decision.
Citizens Not Politicians had to submit at least 1,000 signatures to the attorney general with an amendment summary. Attorney General David Yost has until Aug. 23 to certify the initiative, after which the Ohio Ballot Board will consider the amendment’s language and impact.
The group’s goal is to place the amendment on the November 2024 ballot, meaning the group has until July 3 to collect the required 413,487 signatures.
Before next November, the Ohio Supreme Court will likely decide whether the most recent congressional map was unconstitutional. After ruling it as such last July, the court was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court in June to reconsider its decision in light of the case Moore v. Harper, in which the justices rejected the idea that state legislatures’ districting decisions are exempt from court review.
Read the full amendment and summary below.