COLUMBUS, Ohio – Congressional redistricting is the arcane but consequential process of redrawing U.S. House districts every 10 years, which often goes unnoticed by citizens.
This week, a final congressional map for Ohio sprinted through the Legislature and was signed by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine on Saturday — all in less than five days. The map only received Republican support, meaning it will endure for only four years, not a whole decade as the process envisions.
The new Ohio map includes six safe Republican seats, two safe Democratic seats and seven seats Republicans say are competitive, but which voting rights groups, Democrats and academics say still lean the GOP's way. The state lost one of its current 16 congressional seats due to its lagging population recorded in the 2020 census.
Maps that are drawn to overly advantage one political party, called gerrymandering, have played a role in heightened, even deadly, tensions on display in the U.S. in recent years, as Americans feel unheard by their government, said University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven.
“I am absolutely aware that gerrymandering is kind of abstract, and it invites a certain eye glaze when you start talking about it,” Niven said, "but it also touches every single issue that you care about.”
Here's a look at how Ohio's congressional map made its last-minute dash into law:
HOW WAS THE SYSTEM SUPPOSED TO WORK?
In Ohio, voters approved a new system beginning this year that was supposed to ensure meaningful participation by both parties in a fairer, more transparent map-drawing process. The result would be maps that didn’t pack together, crack apart or otherwise manipulate voter blocs to “unduly” favor one party or its incumbents.
Under Issue 1, a 2018 constitutional amendment approved by almost 75% of voters, the state Legislature could adopt a 10-year map with 60% of members in both the Ohio House and Ohio Senate, including 50% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats.
If they failed, the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission, created under a similar 2015 amendment aimed at reforming legislative districting, would get its chance. If that panel failed to pass a bipartisan map, legislators would get another chance. On the second go-round, support from only a third of each major party's members was required for a 10-year plan.
If all that failed, a 4-year map — the one Ohioans now ultimately have — could be passed by a simple majority, along party lines.
WHERE DID THE SYSTEM BREAK DOWN?
A better question might be: Where didn't it break down? The Legislature missed its initial deadline to try for a 10-year map, then the Redistricting Commission missed its mark, too. Neither Republican-controlled body held any hearings, perhaps discouraged by the failure to win Democratic support on the maps of state House and Senate districts passed in September.
From there, House and Senate government committees picked up the ball, opening testimony on the same day on dueling Republican proposals, which expert map watchers determined were heavily skewed toward electing their own party. Democrats threw their own map proposals into the mix. Neither committee ever voted to recommend a final map.
Opponents of the Republican plans held out hope for a Joint Congressional Redistricting Committee, a bipartisan panel of senators and representatives required under Issue 1. The panel could have been seated at any point this year, but it didn't finally materialize until about three weeks before redistricting's drop-dead Nov. 30 deadline. Two emotional hearings on four separate maps were held. Again, nothing was decided, no compromise forged. The panel abruptly adjourned with no clear statement on what would happen next.
“They were so far from seeking a fair, bipartisan plan that they couldn’t even begin to agree on what the building blocks of a bipartisan plan would be,” Niven said.
HOW FAST DID THE FINAL MAP MOVE?
The following Monday, at just past 8 p.m., Republican House Speaker Bob Cupp released a final GOP-drawn map. As advocates, scholars and Democrats not involved in the process scrambled to understand the latest boundaries, a committee hearing in the Senate was hastily scheduled for the next morning.
The panel met Tuesday, heard mostly angry testimony, then voted, sending the map to an immediate successful floor vote. Its House counterpart took up the map the next day, approving it. A House floor vote sealed the deal on Thursday. DeWine signed it into law about 30 hours later.
DID DELAYED CENSUS RESULTS CAUSE THE RUSH?
Yes and no. Typically, Ohio and other states would have received their updated population figures on April 1. Instead, coronavirus-related delays pushed back their arrival by more than four months.
Ohio Republicans took action early to address the problem. Attorney General Dave Yost sued in March to try to force earlier release of census figures. A federal judge nixed the lawsuit, although a later negotiation did accelerate things somewhat. In May, GOP Senate President Matt Huffman, an author of Issue 1 with huge sway in the process, proposed a fast-moving constitutional amendment that would have lengthened redistricting deadlines on a one-time basis. But Democrats balked and the plan was scrapped.
Still, a coalition of voting-rights and labor groups argued back in April that much could have been accomplished even without the data. That included releasing planning and research funds, launching public websites, appointing committee members and holding hearings featuring political science, mapping, data, legal and voting rights experts, as well as members of the public. The first public hearing on either a legislative or congressional map was held Aug. 23.