Ohio Senate President, redistricting reform supporters, trade criticisms in post-primary event


By Susan Tebben

Ohio Capital Journal

COLUMBUS – Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman spoke out Thursday against a proposed constitutional amendment to remove politicians from the redistricting process and give authority over state redistricting to an independent, citizen-led commission.

In a post-primary event hosted by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, Republican Senate President Huffman, who oversees a supermajority in his chamber representing districts five times rejected as unconstitutionally gerrymandered by a bipartisan majority on the Ohio Supreme Court in 2021 and 2022, gave a rebuttal to arguments being made by supporters of the Citizens Not Politicians ballot initiative, both around the state and at the chamber event itself.

“The litigation is going to be extraordinary,” Huffman said.

In criticizing the reform effort, Huffman also defended reforms made in 2015 and 2018, which he helped lead and for which he helped negotiate the terms.

Those reforms led to the elected-official-helmed Ohio Redistricting Commission, who worked over the last two years on six different versions of Ohio Statehouse district maps and two U.S. congressional map versions.

Huffman spent about half of his allowed time at the chamber event going through the timeline for the previous reforms, up to the point in 2014 when the first reforms were deemed ready to head to voters.

“This isn’t as good as it used to be for the majority, it’s better than it was for the minority,” Huffman said of the 2014 reforms. “This is the way we’re going to be able to come up and have a map and not have lawsuits and chaos and all of that like we’ve had in the past.”

Voters overwhelmingly supported the measures in both 2015 and 2018, but the measures weren’t truly “tested” until the most recent round of map-drawing, he said.

In 2021, when the process began as it does every 10 years with the arrival of new census numbers in the state, it grew into a two-year slog that involved lawsuits and the eventual rejections of five Statehouse district maps, along with rejections of both congressional maps, as unconstitutionally partisan.

The sixth Statehouse map was passed unanimously by the commission in September 2023, and was the first to receive support from the two Democratic members of the group. The Ohio Supreme Court received a challenge to those Statehouse maps as well, but the bipartisan agreement persuaded the court to leave the maps in place. Those maps are in place for the 2024 Election and will represent the Ohio General Assembly starting in 2025.

“When allowed to work in the summer of 2023, (the redistricting process) did work,” Huffman said.

Ohio House Democratic Leader Allison Russo said that Democrats had to either hold their nose and vote for the long-term maps or face the prospect of more litigation and maps that were worse, with a new Ohio Supreme Court more sympathetic to Republicans.

“A ‘no’ vote would conclude with a two-year map more gerrymandered than the current unconstitutional 2022 maps, get a rubber stamp of approval by a new Ohio Supreme Court, and again subject Ohioans to even worse maps redrawn by this commission in 2025,” Russo wrote at the time.

For the senate Republican leader, those supporting the new proposal for citizen district-drawing “are actually reversing their opinion” if they supported the reforms he helped create.

The new proposal would remove jurisdictional requirements and allow splitting of areas unlike in previous reforms, according to Huffman. That would impact many Ohioans, but he focused especially on Black Ohioans who may want to run for office.

“When we’re going to eliminate the splitting of local jurisdictions, when we’re going to allow pinwheel-type jurisdictions that can start in downtown Cleveland or Columbus or Cincinnati and go out into the suburbs, there are going to be fewer African Americans elected to Congress and to the General Assembly,” Huffman told the audience on Thursday.

The redistricting reformers

Former Ohio Supreme Court justices Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, and Yvette McGee Brown, a Democrat, had the opposite to say about the ballot initiative they support, for which creators are currently collecting signatures to get it placed on the November ballot.

“You have to start with keeping communities whole,” according to McGee Brown, who said that didn’t happen over the last two years of redistricting efforts.

The two former justices said the impact of previous redistricting efforts can be seen in the lack of activity and representation in the state legislature, which last year passed the lowest amount of legislation since the 1950s.

“Interest can not be addressed appropriately,” O’Connor said of the inactivity. “There’s stagnation and there’s what’s quite obvious in any environment where there’s a supermajority, and that is an unwillingness to reach across the aisle and come to a consensus, and that’s what you want in a legislature.”

O’Connor acted as the swing vote on the Ohio Supreme Court in the bipartisan rejection of gerrymandered maps in 2021 and 2022.

The supporters of the initiative also painted a starkly different picture versus criticisms Huffman made of the proposal. The senate leader said the measure would not create a more transparent process and would make the process of even choosing the commission members arduous.

“This is removing the decision-making power for redistricting from the voters, putting it in a star chamber with very little light being shined on it,” Huffman said on Thursday.

O’Connor, however, said one of the key tenets of the new proposal is making everything the commission does “viewable.”

“Not just open to the public where they can come to a room and watch what’s going on personally, but it will be televised,” she said. “There will be absolutely no meetings or any decisions made behind closed doors.”

Huffman told reporters that he doesn’t plan to be the face of the campaign against the ballot initiative, though he’s confident there will be “a variety of opponents,” from Black political candidates to members of the legal community.

“I think that in many ways it may just be, it may appear to be self-serving for me to be the voice of the campaign,” he said.

He also made a prediction for the maps passed under the new process, if the ballot initiative is passed. He pointed to a December federal court decision in Michigan, in which the court ruled that 13 districts in their statehouse map had to be redrawn due to violations of the Voting Rights Act. The maps were drawn by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

“That is going to happen with this also if this is passed,” Huffman said.

The independent commission redrew the maps, and a special master determined they met constitutional standards this week.

The deadline for Citizens Not Politicians to submit supporting signatures to the Ohio Secretary of State is July 3.

Read more at ohiocapitaljournal.com.

Read more at ohiocapitaljournal.com.

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