COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio Redistricting Commission failed for a second time on Saturday to reach the bipartisan consensus necessary to pass 10-year maps of state legislative districts based on 2020 census totals.
Despite being scolded by the state’s high court, the seven-member panel approved new maps along party lines in the face of a court-set Saturday deadline. That means the maps would again be good for just four years, rather than the 10 intended through the census-driven redistricting process.
In a strange twist, the commission returned and took its vote just as the Cincinnati Bengals were scoring a tie-breaking field goal as time expired to land their first AFC championship slot in 33 years.
The high court has reserved the right to review the new maps after voting rights and Democratic groups successfully challenged an earlier round of maps as an extreme partisan gerrymander.
Though the second round of boundaries got closer to the state's 54% Republican to 46% Democratic partisan breakdown than the first set, they still created heavy GOP majorities in both the Ohio House and Ohio Senate: 57 Republican and 42 Democratic House seats and 20 Republican and 13 Democratic Senate seats. Many districts are so closely divided that they could be election toss-ups.
The first round of maps included 62 of 99 Ohio House seats that favored Republicans, or about 62%, and 23 of 33 Ohio Senate seats that favored the GOP, or nearly 70%.
House Democratic Leader-elect Allison Russo, who cast a no vote, called Saturday's action shameful.
“Ultimately, this is not an issue of geography or technical inability to draw fair maps," she said, on behalf of opponents. "It is a lack of political courage and a blatant disregard for the court's order and the will of the Ohio voters.”
Republican Senate President Matt Huffman, who voted yes, said the maps “address” the court's opinion.
“Commission members and their respective staff together worked tirelessly over the last week to produce a constitutional plan that no one else, including the Democrats' highly compensated outside contractors, could produce, including a six figure payment to their main consultant,” said his spokesman, John Fortney.
That consultant, Chris Glassburn, endured hours of grilling on Saturday, particularly by Huffman — repeatedly offering to work cooperatively with the GOP on their concerns to bring the two parties' proposals together.
“I believe we in our proposal have gone a long way to demonstrate it simply is not necessary to gerrymander or do dramatically strange things to achieve the proportionality as outlined in the Supreme Court,” he said.
Republicans defended their own maps of districts as the only ones that abided by all the elements of the Ohio Constitution, pointing to the fact that they did deliver Democrats more seats than the previous plan.
The two parties failed to come together despite extensive behind-the-scenes negotiations. Panelists said those talks took place between the staffs of commissioners of both parties for nearly all 10 of the days since the court’s ruling. The transparency was a distinct change from the last time in September, when three Republican statewide officials on the panel said GOP lawmakers largely shut them out of backroom map-making deliberations.
Senate Finance Director Ray DiRossi helped lead Republican map-drawing efforts. He repeatedly declined to provide specific evidence of what exactly prevented the GOP from attempting to get closer to the state's 54% Republican-46% Democratic political divide with its maps.
“We have done nothing but attempt for the last nine-and-a-half days,” he said. “Every ounce of our effort, collectively and individually, and all of the other staff have been towards complying with the court rulings. Everything we've done has done that, so my life for the last nine-and-a-half days would be my evidence.”
Ohio is using a new redistricting process for this first time this year for both legislative and congressional maps established through statewide ballot issues in 2015 and 2018 that received overwhelming voter support.were left with little choice.