COLUMBUS — With time running out to move the state’s presidential and U.S. House primaries back to March, an Ohio congressman is asking a judge to put contested GOP-drawn congressional lines into place immediately.
The state Democratic Party is trying to put the map’s fate before voters next year and has asked for a lawsuit by a Republican voter over the boundaries to be dropped, painting it as premature.
Both have joined a suit filed in October by Belinda Ward of Batavia, which asks Clermont County Common Pleas Judge Jerry McBride to draw the districts himself.
McBride is set to meet Friday with lawyers with a stake in the case’s outcome. They include the attorney for Ward, as well as representatives of the Ohio Secretary of State’s office, U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette’s office, and both the Democratic and Republican national committees in Washington.
Discussion is likely to surround how aggressive a time frame to set in the case, said Ward attorney Joseph Braun.
Once every decade lawmakers need to draw new congressional districts to reflect changes in population. Because of slow population growth, Ohio’s U.S. House delegation shrunk from 18 to 16.
To reflect that, Ohio’s ruling Republicans approved a new map in September — a map that Democrats and voter groups say favors GOP incumbents with 12 safe seats of 16.
When Democrats launched a repeal effort, leaving the map’s future uncertain, Ward filed a lawsuit in the GOP stronghold of Clermont County asking a judge to draw the map since the two parties couldn’t come to an agreement.
LaTourette, a Republican, joined the lawsuit in November, asking the judge to put the GOP-drawn lines passed in September into place immediately. Court documents filed by his lawyer say the lines need to be in place by Dec. 7 — the filing deadline for the March 6 primary — so the judge should use the ones already approved by Ohio’s elected officials.
Lawmakers voted in October to split the 2012 primary elections in two, with House and presidential candidates facing elections in June and all other candidates — including U.S. Senate contenders — facing elections in March.
Republicans sought to reunite the primaries in a later bill attached to a revised congressional map, but the legislation was blocked by Democrats still dissatisfied with the lines. The move to June was intended to allow extra time ahead of the important 2012 election in a key swing state, but critics say holding two primaries is both confusing and costly.
Matt McClellan, a spokesman for elections chief Jon Husted, said the office has been advising all candidates to file their paperwork by Dec. 7 on the advice of the Legislature. Under party rules, some delegates that help determine presidential candidates — whether Democratic President Barack Obama or Republicans facing off in the primary — are based on congressional districts. Without final lines, those determinations can’t be made.
Democrats have joined the Clermont County lawsuit in hopes of getting McBride to throw it out.
Ohioans for Fair Districts, a group headed by Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, says that the lawsuit was filed prematurely.
Democrats have until Christmas Day to submit the more than 231,000 signatures necessary to put the map’s fate before voters in 2012. If they fail to gather enough, then the GOP map is put into place and the lawsuit is meaningless, the group argues in court filings.
LaTourette Chief of Staff Dino Disanto and Donald McTigue, lawyer for Ohioans for Fair Districts, declined to comment while the case is ongoing.
Some legal experts agree with Democrats that the lawsuit was filed too early.
Dan Tokaji, redistricting expert and professor at the Moritz College of Law at the Ohio State University, said the controversy isn’t really ripe until Democrats discover if they have enough support for a repeal effort.
He said having a judge implement the GOP-drawn lines — as LaTourette has asked — would usurp Ohioans’ right under the state constitution to challenge laws they don’t agree with.
“The lawsuit seems to be the wrong relief here,” he said.
Michael McDonald, head of the United States Elections Project at George Mason University, also said the suit may be premature.
“The courts generally prefer to stay out of the political thicket when they can. Eventually the courts will get involved, but it doesn’t sound like they have to yet,” he said.
McDonald added, however, that it wasn’t unwise of Ward to file the litigation before Democrats turned in their signatures to repeal the map.
“You want litigation proceeding so you have a challenge to the current map before it takes effect,” he said. “They may start the legal process forward so if they do have to move they can do so quickly.”
In an earlier filing, Kasich asked to be dismissed from the lawsuit, arguing he had no part in drawing the lines — only signed the bill establishing them.