COLUMBUS Arguing that his plan is superior to one Ohio voters could see on the November ballot, Sen. Matt Huffman officially unveiled his congressional redistricting proposal Wednesday and ran into a sharp partisan divide.
"If you don't like this, let's see some amendments," the Lima Republican told his colleagues.
Huffman and GOP legislative leaders are pushing to get a redistricting plan on the May ballot ahead of a plan crafted by the Fair Districts = Fair Elections coalition, which under Ohio law must wait until the November election.
The plans are designed to reform a process that allows the majority party to draw districts to its benefit, known as gerrymandering. Republicans have held a tight grip on 12 of Ohio's 16 congressional districts since they drew the lines in 2011.
Huffman's proposal would require a bipartisan vote to approve a map for 10 years. But the Fair Districts coalition, which includes the League of Women Voters of Ohio, says Huffman's plan could still allow Republicans to draw a map controlling of 12 of 15 districts — the number of seats anticipated after the 2020 census.
"I don't know a single Democrat supporting this," said Sen. Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood. "This was drafted behind closed doors, being forced upon us by a dominant majority in the General Assembly. It's a plan to ensure Republicans hold power and dominance in drawing the congressional maps."
Huffman countered Wednesday that the coalition's proposal could allow for a 15-0 Republican map, though it's unclear how.
Key issues affecting the debate:
The starting point
Republicans are presenting their plan in comparison to the current congressional map. Meanwhile, Democrats and other advocates are gauging how it stacks up to the Fair Districts coalition proposal.
This creates a wide disagreement over what is considered a quality plan.
Huffman said the rules in his plan would make a number of current districts illegal.
But leaders of the Fair Elections coalition say it's not enough to invalidate some of the current map. They say Huffman's plan lacks protections to assure one party can't continue to gerrymander the map to its benefit.
Huffman's plan would allow the 10 most populous Ohio counties to be split into two, three or four congressional districts, on a limited basis.
Meanwhile, the Fair Districts plan says that, "where feasible" no county can be split into more than two congressional districts.
"The problem is, you can't draw a map under those rules," Huffman said, arguing it's not possible, particularly in northeast Ohio, to make a map work without more county splits.
"That is absolutely not true," said Ohio State professor emeritus Richard Gunther, who helped draft the coalition's proposal. He said it just ties the hands of those who want to split the Democratic vote in urban counties.
Huffman also said the coalition plan would not allow the state to keep the district represented by Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Cleveland, as one with a majority black population.
"You won't be able to comply with the Voting Rights Act," he said. "If it's the intent of folks to send this off to federal court to draw (the map), they're doing a pretty good job."
Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University constitutional law professor and elections law expert, said it is "demonstrably incorrect" to say Ohio must draw a district with a majority black population, pointing to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision out of North Carolina.
"Anyone making that argument is just unfamiliar with the law. That's the nicest way I can put it," Tokaji said.
The coalition proposal says the proportion of districts should correspond to the partisan preferences of voters in statewide elections over the past 10 years. This is known as representational fairness.
Republicans want nothing to do with it.
If Ohio draws a map with eight Republican seats and seven Democratic ones based on past votes, Huffman said, "You"re drawing the districts based on party affiliation. That is the definition of partisan gerrymandering."
Gunther said that is a distortion of the definition of gerrymandering.
"We are proposing the drawing of district lines in a manner that does not favor any party over the other," he said.
Jim Siegel is a staff writer for The Columbus Dispatch.