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Debate kicks off in Ohio over new congressional maps

By JULIE CARR SMYTH Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Democrats objected strongly to a new congressional map proposed by Ohio House Republican, saying Democrats had no time to review the map in advance and were given scant details, as both chambers of the state’s Legislature began work on redistricting Wednesday.

State Rep. Stephanie Howse, a Cleveland Democrat, called the lack of transparency granted to the House’s minority party unacceptable.

“We are utilizing the people’s money, and people deserve better than this,” Howse said.

The complaints followed a series of missed deadlines and a party-line vote amid new redistricting protocols Ohioans voted overwhelmingly to establish in the state Constitution.

Later Wednesday, an Ohio Senate committee heard testimony on two more versions of the state’s congressional map — one created by Senate Democrats, one by Senate Republicans.

At issue is the once-per-decade requirement that states redraw congressional districts to reflect updated census figures. Ohio lost one U.S. House district, going from 16 to 15, as a result of lagging population in the 2020 census. The survey’s results were delayed this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, affecting Ohio’s process.

Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters-Ohio, expressed disappointment in the House rollout.

“Nothing about this process has been what the voters of Ohio wanted when they voted for reform in 2018 by 75% of the vote,” Miller said. “This has not been transparent, this has not really engaged in the public, they have not respected any of the deadlines to date. We’re seeing a lot of backroom deals and maps that appear to favor partisan outcomes rather than the needs of everyday Ohioans.”

Sponsoring state Rep. Scott Oelslager, a North Canton Republican, disagreed. He described the map proposed Wednesday as “constitutionally compliant” with what voters approved and with the Voting Rights Act. He said eight of its districts lean Republican, five are competitive and two lean Democratic.

Oelslager said the House Republican map was completed Sunday, and deferred a reporter’s question on why it wasn’t received by Democrats until 18 minutes before the hearing.

“We’re not talking about getting away with anything,” Oelslager told reporters after the hearing. “It’s just very transparent. We’ve had this hearing today; I don’t know how long I stood up there trying to answer questions.”

He noted that Wednesday’s hearing on the map proposal was only the first of many.

Ohio’s current congressional delegation is made up of 12 Republicans and four Democrats. A 2019 Associated Press analysis of partisan gerrymandering found that Ohio Republicans won at least three more U.S. House seats than would have been expected based on the average share of the votes that Republicans received.

State Rep. Shane Wilkin, the Republican chair of the House State Government Committee, dismissed pleas from Howse and other Democrats, who said they needed a written copy of Oelslager’s testimony and the “shape files” that allow experts to crunch detailed census and voting data.

Wilkin also declined a request from Rep. Tavia Galonski, an Akron Democrat, for the committee to recess so Democrats could analyze the map before posing their questions.

Asked if he would waive a requirement that testimony on the map be submitted 24 hours in advance, given another hearing was scheduled for Thursday, Wilkin said, “The chair will be as flexible as they possibly can.”

In the Senate, the Democrats’ map creates eight Republican-leaning and seven Democratic-leaning districts, and draws three pairs of sitting Republican congressmen into single districts; Steve Chabot and Brad Wenstrup, Bill Johnson and Troy Balderson, and Bob Latta and Warren Davidson, respectively.

When Senate State Government and Elections Chair Teresa Gavarone asked why no Democrats were drawn together, Democratic policy advisor Randall Routt said there are only four and their districts are too far apart.

Routt told the panel the caucus viewed minimizing county and community splits a priority, even though that meant district populations deviated widely when they are supposed to be equivalent.

Senate Republicans’ map prioritized the compactness of districts and keeping almost all of Ohio’s 25 largest cities whole, said sponsoring state Sen. Rob McColley, of Napoleon. He said, depending on the indices used, the boundaries in his proposal would create five Republican, two Democratic and as many as eight competitive districts.

All three maps will now begin moving through the committee and negotiation process.

The job of drawing the districts has fallen to the state Legislature after the new Ohio Redistricting Commission missed its deadline to take first action in the process. Lawmakers have until the end of the month to complete the map-making process. A 10-year map would require support from at least half of House Democrats. Otherwise, the map would have to abide by more stringent requirements and would last only four years.