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EXPLAINER: State legislative district maps are set, special primary to be held in August

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WYSO's Mike Frazier spoke with the Statehouse News Bureau's Andy Chow to break it all down.

Ohio State legislative maps were implemented by a panel of federal judges on Friday night. There will be a special primary election to determine the Republican and Democratic candidates for state representatives and some state senators on August 2. To break it all down, WYSO's Mike Frazier spoke with the Statehouse News Bureau’s Andy Chow.

[The following transcript has been edited lightly for length and clarity.]

Andy Chow: This Federal court order that's come out has really put Ohio into a completely new phase of this Ohio redistricting saga that goes all the way back to August of last year when the Ohio Redistricting Commission met for the first time.

Since August, the Ohio Redistricting Commission has adopted five sets of state legislative district maps — those are maps that reflect 99 Ohio House seats and 33 Ohio Senate seats — and all five times, all five sets of maps that the Ohio Redistricting Commission has adopted have been rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The latest round of maps that were found unconstitutional, it was that fifth set, they were found unconstitutional just a week ago.

Mike Frazier: Why were they found unconstitutional?

Chow: Ohio voters voted in 2015 to change the state constitution when it comes to the redistricting process and the way leaders draw maps. This is a way to avoid what's called gerrymandering, where one political party draws the maps to favor their party over the other. In those reforms to the state Constitution that voters approved of in 2015, it has very strict rules when it comes to unduly favoring one party over another.

In the last nine months, every single time, the Ohio Supreme Court has said the maps that were drawn by the commission violate at least part of those reforms that voters put into the state constitution.

Most recently, the last three rounds of maps have reflected Ohio's proportionality, which is 54% Republican and 46% Democratic but those maps are still giving an advantage to the Republicans when it comes to the amount of competitive seats. For example, the Ohio House proposed map has 45 seats that lean in favor of the Democrats but 16 of those 45 Democratic seats are “toss-up” districts so it could easily sway the other way and still give Republicans a supermajority in the House. The same can be said in the Ohio Senate map.

Frazier: Are there any legal ramifications pending for the redistricting commission regarding them submitting maps that were later ruled by the Ohio Supreme Court as unconstitutional?

Chow: Every single time the Ohio Redistricting Commission has adopted a map, the Ohio Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional. The first couple of times, the redistricting commission did go to the table and say, "let's redraw these maps following the Supreme Court's guidance." The last couple of times, though, many have argued the redistricting commission has ignored that guidance and several plaintiffs in the case, the people who are objecting to these Republican drawn maps, have tried to ask the Ohio Supreme Court to hold the redistricting commission in contempt of court for not following those guidelines. They've come close a couple of times, but so far in those requests, the Ohio Supreme Court has found that the redistricting commissions will not be held in contempt of court. However, that still is a big question lingering because every single time a map is rejected, it seems like the commission is doing less and less to follow that guidance that the Ohio Supreme Court puts out there.

Frazier: And a Democratic lawmaker has filed a criminal complaint against the Republicans on the commission?

Chow: Yeah, what we've really seen with this latest ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court and the federal court stepping in is that Democrats, community organizations, voter rights advocates, they're all looking for the next step, the next way to react to this whole saga that's been going on.

For voting rights advocates, they've been looking at possibly entertaining the idea of changing the state constitution again to provide more guardrails against gerrymandering. Community organizations are still calling on the redistricting commission to continue to work on new maps and you do have Democratic lawmakers like Democratic Representative Jeff Crossman, who we should note is running for Ohio Attorney General, he filed criminal complaints against only the Republicans on the redistricting commission, saying that they are in dereliction of their duty by continuing to pass maps that are found unconstitutional. Now, again, Crossman is running for attorney general, and all the spokespeople for the Republican commissioners called this a political stunt. One of the examples there is that he included Republican Auditor Keith Faber in that complaint, even though Faber has voted against several of the maps that have come out lately.

Frazier: Why is there going to be a second primary in Ohio on August 2nd and what exactly will be on that ballot?

Chow: Throughout this entire nine month saga of the redistricting commission, all the ups and downs included having to delay the primary, the May 3 primary, for all the state legislative races. Those are the House races, all the 99 House races and half of the 33 Senate races. If you're going to delay it, you've got to have it at some point. Now local officials are preparing for a primary for August 2.

As of this moment, August 2 is the planned primary for those state legislative races. And those local boards of elections, because of this federal court order, will now use map three — that's the set of maps that were passed by the redistricting commission in February, rejected by the Supreme Court in March. Those are the maps that are going to be used by local boards of elections for the August 2 primary, for state legislative races and for the general election in November.

Frazier: That map will be used even though it was ruled unconstitutional?

Chow: It was ruled unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court in March. But because of all these impending deadlines, because of the fact that Ohio still needs to run some type of election for these state legislative districts, a group of Republican voters went to the federal court and said, listen, we're seeing an impasse between the redistricting commission and the Ohio Supreme Court and we want the federal court to step in. At first, the federal court said, no, this is a state issue. The state should be able to handle it. The commissioners should be able to listen to the Supreme Court and pass constitutional maps. But at the end of the day, because of all the stalling that happened, because of the impasse that happened, the federal court decided to step in and to implement maps that they recognize have been found unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court.

Frazier: Will the August 2 primary be considered a normal primary regarding early voting, absentee voting, in-person voting locations?

Chow: That's a great question and that's one of the questions that is still somewhat up in the air. As far as we know, the Secretary of State's office has said, to keep the train on the tracks and to be able to follow all the normal things that Ohio voters expect, that, yes, that August 2 primary is expected to be what you would see in any type of other election with the several weeks of early voting, with the ability to register. All those things should be intact because that was one of the big arguments made by the Republican redistricting commissioners, is that they wanted to be able to hit all those deadlines to be able to run an election here in Ohio.

Frazier: Hypothetically, how could this date change and the chaotic primary season that we've had this year, how could all this affect voter turnout on August 2?

Chow: What we've seen historically is that it is hard to generate voter turnout for these special elections. These special elections were actually the target of criticism by lawmakers in the past, some proposing that we get rid of special elections because they cost a lot of money and not a lot of people turn out for them anyway. The fact that we're having a second primary when we just had a primary on May 3, there is expected to be a lot of people out there who say, wait a minute, didn't we just do this in May? Why do I have to do this over again? It's hard enough to get people to understand that there are 99 seats in the Ohio House and 33 seats in the Ohio Senate. The fact that you're trying to get people to go out to vote for these races in August at a time when maybe schools are still out, maybe people are still on vacation, that's going to be a big ask for people.

Frazier: Is there any estimate how of much the special August 2 election will cost?

Chow: To run a statewide election, it's expected to cost anywhere between $15 to $25 million and it is expected to run past $20 million to be able to hold the special election in August.

Frazier: Where will that funding come from?

Chow: It could come from all sorts of places. The Ohio legislature has already released some funding to help local election boards pull off the primary that they just had in May. It is expected that more money could be coming from other general revenue funds, perhaps from some state federal funding. It's unclear at this point. There's actually one Republican lawmaker who proposed that the Ohio Supreme Court should pay for the second primary because that lawmaker blames the Ohio Supreme Court for the impasse. Of course, there are people on the other side who blame the Ohio redistricting commission for this entire saga.

Frazier: That leads to my next question, which you partially addressed: is there any accountability for the extra expense regarding all of this primary election fiasco?

Chow: This whole issue since the beginning of the Ohio Redistricting Commission has added up to a lot of money, not only in the meetings but in the process to hire independent mapmakers, to hiring lawyers to defend them in the Ohio Supreme Court. It's been millions of dollars when you include the extra primary and really, there hasn't been much of a question of accountability at this point. Of course, you have certain sides arguing that the other side is to blame. But as far as who's going to be footing the bill at the end of the day, that's still a question that's up in the air.

Frazier: The federal ruling that occurred over the weekend for the August 2 election, is this going to be the last word on these state legislative districts?

Chow: This is expected to be the last word on these state legislative district maps for the year 2022. But there's still a bigger question to be had about the maps after this election cycle, because the federal court has said, listen, we're only implementing these maps for this election cycle alone. So the Ohio Redistricting Commission is still expected to go back to the drawing board to create maps for the 2024 election and beyond. In fact, the Ohio Supreme Court in its last ruling told the Ohio Redistricting Commission that they must adopt a new set of maps by June 3 and if they do that, that will be the sixth set of maps that they've adopted since convening.

A chance meeting with a volunteer in a college computer lab in 1987 brought Mike to WYSO. He started filling in for various music shows, and performed various production, news, and on-air activities during the late 1980s and 90s, spinning vinyl and cutting tape before the digital evolution.