By Tyler Buchanan
Ohio Capital Journal


A last-second addition to the Ohio Senate’s budget proposal would give Republican leaders sole ability to contest legal challenges to the new legislative maps drawn this year.

Ohio voters in 2015 and 2018 approved new redistricting processes for drawing state and congressional districts that will be first implemented this year. The new system encourages greater transparency and bipartisanship by requiring approval from both political parties in order for maps to be enacted for the coming decade.

The pandemic has delayed getting the U.S. Census data to be used by Ohio officials to redraw the districts. This has fair maps advocates concerned that the eventual maps will be challenged in court — if not for gerrymandering, for the hurried timeline allegedly violating the spirit of reforms passed by voters.

The new provision in the Ohio Senate’s budget bill would uniquely position Republican leaders to respond to such legal challenges and restrict Democrats’ ability to do so.

If a map dispute heads to the Ohio Supreme Court later this year, the Republican leaders would be entitled to intervene in the case.

Normally, the state would be represented by its top lawyer, the attorney general. But the budget provision would allow the House speaker and Senate president to use taxpayer funds to obtain private legal counsel.

No other legislator, including any Democrats, would be allowed this privilege.

It’s unclear if this provision will succeed in being enacted. Lawmakers in the House would have to agree to it first, as would Gov. Mike DeWine when the final budget version reaches his desk later this month.

But it does reflect an early effort from Ohio Republicans to better control the redistricting process in 2021, the results of which will impact elections for the next 10 years.

Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, characterized the provision as simply a push for the legislative branch to have a “seat at the table” as potential challenges make their way through the judicial system.

Organizations making up the Equal Districts Coalition are opposed to this budget provision. Among them is All on the Line Ohio, a left-leaning organization which advocates for a fair mapmaking system. Katy Shanahan, the group’s state director in Ohio, called the provision an “insult” to the recent public reform measures.

These voter reforms passed in 2015 and 2018 made clear that Ohioans want the minority party to have a voice in redistricting, Shanahan said. While there will hopefully be bipartisan support for maps, she noted this may not preclude there being legal challenges to the maps.

Shanahan questions the motives for wanting to block Democrats from intervening in cases and is further skeptical about public dollars used to pay for private legal representation.

“It further tilts the scales in Republicans’ favor during this redistricting process,” Shanahan argued.

Huffman has waved off this criticism, saying the provision is about creating a framework for the legislature to know when and how to intervene in a case that greatly impacts it.

“We just thought it would be the simplest way to get to the answer,” he said.

As for it only benefiting Republicans in 2021, Huffman waved off criticism by pointing out that Ohio could have different leadership in place for 2031 and beyond. Future redistricting cycles could have split representation or possibly Democrats in full control and thus able to intervene as they see fit, Huffman said.

The U.S. Census data is expected to be delivered to Ohio officials by Aug. 16.

That gives the Ohio Redistricting Commission only a few short weeks to draw and approve new state legislative maps. In the meantime, Shanahan noted there is plenty the state could be doing to prepare for these deadlines. All on the Line Ohio wants to see public hearings that could educate citizens about the project and prepare them for the mapmaking timeline.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission could be meeting to better plan for the August rush, and the legislature still has to pass a constitutionally-required bill to lay out the public input process. A bill from House Democrats has seen no progress since being introduced a month ago.