COLUMBUS — Ohio’s Democratic Party chairman wants to know by the end of the week whether the state’s ruling Republicans are willing to compromise on a new congressional district map.
The current map, drawn by the GOP and signed into law in September, is on hold after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Friday that it is subject to possible repeal by voters. Senate Republicans had appropriated money to local elections boards in the bill in a move they hoped would make it effective immediately and shield it from repeal.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern told reporters on Monday that he hoped to hear from Republicans leaders by Friday whether they were willing to work on “a fair map with bipartisan support.”
Senate President Tom Niehaus spokesman John McClelland said all options were on the table at this point.
The map came under fire from Democrats and voter groups, who claim it was crafted to maintain a Republican majority in Ohio’s congressional delegation.
The filing deadline for congressional candidates is Dec. 7 — 90 days before Ohio’s March primary. The map is in legal limbo while the Democratic coalition behind the effort collects signatures to put the map’s fate in the hands of voters in 2012.
Despite warnings from House Speaker William Batchelder that the decision would “throw the 2012 elections into legal chaos,” experts say that it is very unlikely Ohio will enter the presidential election year without congressional districts.
If the state did nothing and left the old congressional districts in place — which were drawn using population counts from 2000 — Ohio would be in violation of the U.S. Constitution, said Dan Tokaji, professor at the Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. The Constitution requires districts to all contain roughly the same amount of people.
What’s more likely is that somebody will go to the federal court and ask them to draw the lines, if lawmakers can’t come to an agreement, said Justin Levitt, law professor and redistricting expert at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Redfern said he’s willing to withdraw the repeal petition if legislators could come up with a map that more accurately reflected Ohio’s political makeup, which he said was close to evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
An analysis by a coalition of voter groups claimed that the GOP’s map drew 12 districts that favored Republicans and four that favored Democrats.
Congressional districts must be redrawn every 10 years to reflect population change. Because of slow population growth, Ohio is losing two of its 18 U.S. House seats.
Federal judges are currently drawing the lines for four states — Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, Levitt said. He said that usually happens because the body drawing the lines didn’t do it on time, couldn’t agree or the map was vetoed by the governor.
Batchelder spokesman Mike Dittoe said the problem with having federal judges draw the map is that there’s a 3-1 chance they would not be from Ohio and would know very little about the state or its people.
Republican legislative leaders stand by the map passed with bipartisan votes, Dittoe said. Two Democrats out of 10 in the 33-member Senate voted for the map, while three out of 40 Democrats in the 99-member House signed off on it.
Having a federal judge draw the map may not be in the worst interests of Republicans, Levitt said.
“There will be a very heavy thumb on the scale to have the maps drawn by the legislature and signed off on by the governor as a starting point,” he said.
Another, albeit unlikely, option would be for candidates to fun in a free-for-all for all 16 seats statewide without any districts.
When asked if that was a possibility, Tokaji laughed.
“I guess you could. I don’t think there are any constitutional barriers,” he said.
Levitt said there’s a very, very slim chance of that happening.
“If you were a gambler, it would probably be safe to put all of your money against that possibility. To my knowledge, it has not happened since the 1960s.”
Levitt said he was also not aware of any state in recent history repealing their congressional maps. Rather than risk having their maps repealed, the ruling party will usually keep the minority party happy enough to eliminate the threat, he said.
In 1915, Ohio Democrats collected signatures to put the then-congressional map on the ballot, where it was repealed by voters.
In order to give lawmakers more time to craft a map — if both sides are indeed willing to compromise — the General Assembly could push back the primary election date, something Redfern advocated Monday at his news conference.
Asked if that was a possibility, Niehaus spokesman McClelland reiterated that everything was on the table.