Every ten years Ohio goes through the process of redistricting both state legislative and Ohio’s congressional districts. Ohio once again has seen its share of members of Congress decreasing, due to slower population growth when compared to other states. Although Ohio’s population grew by 2% compared to the national average of 7.4% over the past decade, the state will still go from 16 congressional districts to 15. Also, on tap this year is the redistricting of the state legislative seats including both the 99 Ohio House of Representatives districts and the 33 Ohio Senate districts.
In 2015 and 2018, Ohioans approved new rules and a new body to draw the states’ Ohio General Assembly seats as well as the congressional seats if the Ohio General Assembly fails to pass a map under new rules, which require minority support. Voters approved new amendments to the Ohio Constitution, which created The Oho Redistricting Commission, a board consisting of the Governor, Secretary of State, State Auditor, and both majority and minority members representing the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House of Representatives. The new commission is tasked with creating new maps which apportion Ohio’s state legislative seats and could have a final say in Ohio’s congressional seats as well. Prior to the constitutional changes the Ohio General Assembly was responsible for drawing district lines and creating the congressional districts through a simple majority vote of the Ohio House and Ohio Senate, while the previously named Ohio Reapportionment board was responsible for the Ohio General Assembly districts.
2021 will be the first time the new commission is operating in the state and the process is already off to a complicated start. Since the U.S. Census Bureau was delayed in part because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in providing states with the needed population and demographic data used to draw district lines, the new commission is working under a compressed timeline. Governor DeWine recently convened the group for the first time, and they announced a series of public meetings, which will occur around the state over the next few weeks.
As the commission looks to move forward, they are facing an early September deadline to approve or recommend a new redistricting plan for the Ohio General Assembly. If a new map, fails to receive bi-partisan support on the new commission for a 10-year map, the commission can approve a 4-year map with a simple majority of the members. A new map for congressional district lines has a window that is a bit longer with final approval slated for the end of November. The Ohio General Assembly is required to draw the new 15 congressional districts and passing the new 10-year map with at least 60% of both the Ohio House and Ohio Senate. This new vote threshold provision is meant to drive minority party support. If the General Assembly fails to pass a new map with at least 60% of each chamber, then the map making authority would shift to the new Ohio Redistricting Commission. If that group fails to pass a map with a least two votes from the minority party the process would once again shift to the General Assembly with an increased vote threshold of at least 60% of each chamber and at least one-third of the minority party approval for a new 10-year map. If all of these efforts fail the General Assembly can move forward with a new 4-year map with a simple majority vote.
If all of this sounds complicated, it’s because it is. The negotiations that created these new rules and processes were driven to create fairer districts which have bi-partisan support. Also, adoption of the new maps will set the stage for the districts Ohioans will vote in for the next 10 years.
So, what’s happening in Ohio that could impact the ability of the commission and the Ohio General Assembly as they are crafting new maps? The recently released biennial census data from the U.S. Census Bureau confirmed what has been observed over the past decade not only in Ohio but around the country. Rural areas have continued to lose population and the growth of the country as a whole is at its slowest rate since prior to WWII. In Ohio, Columbus and other urban and suburban counties, particularly in Central Ohio have continued to see population gains with Columbus being one of a handful of cities to add more than 100,000 new residents over the past ten years, while in other parts of Ohio 55 of Ohio’s 88 counties saw population decreases.
Ohio’s constitution requires equal apportionment of the state’s population among the legislature’s 99 Ohio House districts and 33 Ohio Senate districts. Currently, Ohio’s legislature is dominated by Republican’s who hold supermajorities in both the Ohio House and Ohio Senate. These majorities are primarily driven by the state’s rural areas and recent political shifts throughout Southeastern/Eastern Ohio, as well as the region surrounding the Mahoning Valley, once a democrat stronghold. The state’s map makers will be faced with dividing the legislative districts reflecting these rural loses, which could result in Central Ohio having increased representation at the statehouse. Legislative redistricting has and will continue to be a very complicated issue and where the overall process ends up is still very much up in the air. What is clear is that the next couple of months bring new maps with real near long-term impacts.