Ohio's latest attempt to draw fair political maps crumbled amid Republican infighting Wednesday, begging the question of whether a commission unable even to appoint its co-chairs will be able to negotiate a bipartisan redistricting solution within the few short weeks it's been allotted.
Gov. Mike DeWine grudgingly gaveled the reconstituted Ohio Redistricting Commission to order. That was despite fellow Republicans Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Jason Stephens — presumably from separate locations somewhere off-site — failing to come to any agreement on who the GOP's co-chair should be.
Without their joint appointee, the panel was unable to begin the business of fixing Statehouse district maps that the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans five different times.
“Our fear is more of the same,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
As commissioners were sworn in Wednesday and took their oaths to uphold the U.S. and state constitutions, ironic chuckles arose from some voting rights activists in the room.
“The Ohio Redistricting Commission isn’t functional,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a good government group, adding that bodes poorly for the creation of fair maps.
“If you can’t hear one another, you’re going to have trouble hearing the community, and hearing the folks that come to testify,” she said.
DeWine recessed the commission until 8 a.m. Friday, but said if Republicans' co-chair is not selected by 5:30 p.m. Thursday, that meeting won't go forward.
“Hope springs eternal,” DeWine had quipped to reporters ahead of the meeting, amid the hourlong delay during which clusters of whispering commission members and their aides waited for Huffman's and Stephens' compromise. Two other state officeholders on the commission — Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Auditor Keith Faber — also were forced to idle nearby because of the impasse.
In an Aug. 30 letter to commissioners, LaRose advised that “the redistricting process could potentially conflict with the statutory requirements of election administration” if maps are not complete by Sept. 22. But he placed the latest possible date for providing the information to Ohio's 88 county boards of elections at Nov. 6.
The two Democrats on the commission — House Minority Leader Allison Russo and Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio — presented a united front, saying they were ready to appoint their co-chair and merely waiting for Republicans to work out their differences.
“This speaks to how broken this process is, and has become,” Russo said. “We've had 16 months, and had longer than six months before that, so there are really no excuses here. Again, I think this just speaks to the dysfunction of where this process is.” The commission last met May 5, 2022.
Antonio said this is why a new process is needed that takes control away from politicians — as a proposed 2024 ballot measure would do.
Huffman's appointee to the commission, Republican state Sen. Rob McColley, said the Senate's desire was to have its opportunity to co-chair this time around, since a state representative represented the GOP during the last round of activity. But he said the decision is ultimately up to Huffman and Stephens.
Huffman has signaled plans to return to the Ohio House next year and run for the speakership against Stephens. He maintains close relationships with some House Republicans who backed a different speaker candidate last winter, in a dispute that fueled party divisions that continue to daunt the chamber.
He told reporters at the Statehouse on Wednesday that McColley is his likely successor as Senate president and the chamber's lead negotiator regarding who should co-chair the Redistricting Commission. Huffman said he spoke once to Stephens and asserted it is the Senate's “turn” to lead, and that Stephens agreed to talk about it — which is what was happening.
“We'll get it worked out,” he said. “There have been considerable conversations, as I understand it, regarding the map, which is the real product, not who’s banging the gavel and all that.”
Reporter Samantha Hendrickson contributed to this report. Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.