A campaign pushing to overhaul Ohio’s system of drawing political maps has cleared an initial legal hurdle, after Attorney General Dave Yost gave his OK on Monday to language that will appear on the petitions that the group must circulate to qualify for the ballot.
In a Monday letter, Yost said the summary submitted by Citizens Not Politicians fairly and truthfully describes what the group’s proposed amendment to the state constitution would do if voters approve it. Yost, a Republican, had rejected two previous versions after identifying what he said were discrepancies between the summary and the amendment language itself.
Chris Davey, a spokesperson for the amendment campaign, said his group is “pleased” with Yost’s decision. The group now is just one step away from working to collect the roughly 413,000 valid signatures it must submit before next July to qualify for the November 2024 ballot. The summary that Yost approved will appear on the petitions the group eventually will circulate, and otherwise carries no legal weight.
But first, under state law, the proposal must clear the Ohio Ballot Board, chaired by Republican secretary of State Frank LaRose. The board then will vote within the next 10 days to decide whether the group’s proposal contains a single constitutional amendment, or multiple proposals that must be split into multiple amendments.
A finding that the proposal contains multiple amendments would be a major setback, since that would mean the group would have to collect 413,000 signatures for each amendment. In a video conference with supporters last Thursday, officials with Citizens Not Politicians said they tried to carefully write their proposal to avoid trouble with the Ballot Board, but were prepared to defend the measure legally if needed.
“Politicians do silly things, but we’re fully confident that this complies with the single-subject rules of the state,” said Sean Soendker Nicholson, the group’s campaign director.
The proposed constitutional amendment would create a 15-member Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission made up equally of Democrats, Republicans and voters who are not affiliated with any party. It would replace a seven-member panel of elected officials who currently oversee the process. The current Ohio Redistricting Commission is controlled by Republicans, after the GOP won key elections in 2018 and 2022.
In addition to removing current politicians from the redistricting process, former politicians, political party officials and lobbyists would also be barred from sitting on the commission. The proposal would require fair and impartial districts by making it unconstitutional to draw voting districts that discriminate against or favor any political party or politician. It would also require the commission to operate under an open and independent process.
Republicans, who control the state’s redistricting process thanks to their victories in the 2022 election, are likely to oppose the amendment, arguing that the commission wouldn’t truly remove politics from the redistricting process, which must occur at least every decade to reflect population changes. They already began rallying around a message that Ohio’s redistricting process works after the commission’s two Democrats joined Republicans last week in approving bipartisan state legislative maps.
If approved, the amendment would require Ohio to draw new state legislative and congressional districts in 2025.
Ohio used its current redistricting system, approved by voters in 2015 and 2018, for the first time last year, leading to a dysfunctional process that saw the Ohio Supreme Court reject numerous sets of maps as illegally gerrymandered in favor of Republicans, and Republicans in turn eventually ignoring the court’s orders. The key swing vote in those rulings, retired Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, now is a leader in the new redistricting reform effort.
In the call with supporters last week, O’Connor, a Republican, said she expects there could be a lawsuit filed with the Ohio Supreme Court if the group clears the Ballot Board, similar to the one that opponents of a November abortion-rights measure unsuccessfully waged earlier this month.
“We know that just getting through the ballot board will not necessarily be cause for celebration,” O’Connor said.
Andrew Tobias covers state politics and government for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer
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