By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
COLUMBUS (AP) — A federal court panel on Friday ordered Ohio to hold an Aug. 2 primary using the third set of Statehouse maps approved by the Ohio Redistricting Commission, despite a rebuke of the plan by the state’s high court.
The court acted after giving Ohio a Saturday deadline to come up with a new map for legislative districts, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio said in its ruling.
That deadline would be missed, as the GOP-controlled commission did not schedule any meetings.
“We recognized from the outset that choosing a remedy would be challenging,” Circuit Judge Amul Thapar said in the 2-1 majority opinion.
“And between the standoff among state officials and the delay in getting the case, our options were limited,” Thapar wrote. “So we chose the best of our bad options.”
The federal court’s decision came in a lawsuit brought by a group of Republican voters that initially sought to salvage legislative primaries scheduled for May 3 by using the commission’s third set of district lines, which also was found unconstitutional.
Friday’s ruling was a victory for that GOP group, as well as for the Republican-dominated redistricting commission, which passed five straight sets of legislative maps that couldn’t meet constitutional muster.
A directive to the state’s 88 elections board regarding the primary will be sent Saturday, said Rob Nichols, spokesperson for Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, the state’s elections chief and a member of the redistricting commission.
Federal Judge Algenon Marbley dissented in Friday’s ruling, pointing out that the state Supreme Court reiterated this week that the third map remains unconstitutional.
The best option remained the map drawn by two experts, one selected by Republicans, one by Democrats, Marbley said.
The two men — Douglas Johnson, president of National Demographics Corporation, and Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor — were nearly finished when the commission suddenly set aside their work and passed a different map. The two had been paid $450 an hour for the previous four days to draw new maps in work viewed step-by-step online.
Ohio’s map fight comes amid the once-per-decade political mapmaking process that all states must undertake to reflect population changes from the census. A combination of Republican foot-dragging and legal wrangling has extended redistricting well into the 2022 election season and stymied Ohio’s legislative primaries. Maps were supposed to be completed last fall.
A 2015 constitutional amendment, passed overwhelmingly by voters, required the commission to at least attempt to avoid partisan favoritism and to try to proportionally distribute districts to reflect Ohio’s political makeup, which is split at about 54% Republican, 46% Democrat.
Republican commissioners have argued the set of maps they resubmitted to the court most recently met those requirements. By GOP calculations, the boundaries would create a 54-45 Republican majority in the Ohio House and an 18-15 Republican majority in Ohio Senate. Democrats have challenged their numbers, saying many districts counted in Democrats’ column are very closely divided.
Both LaRose and the association representing election officials in Ohio’s 88 counties, who administer elections, previously said they wanted the legislative primaries to be held Aug. 2.
The court’s Friday decision was disappointing, said state Sen. Vernon Sykes, an Akron Democrat and redistricting commission co-chair. But he noted the ruling only affects elections this year.
“The Ohio Redistricting Commission still has the responsibility to draw fair, constitutional maps for the rest of the decade and I will continue to work toward that goal,” Sykes said.