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Group hoping to change how lawmakers’ districts are drawn to file petitions for fall ballot

Elizabeth Grieser (center) and Amber Decker (right) gather signatures for Citizens Not Politicians near the Riffe Center in downtown Columbus.
Sarah Donaldson
/
Statehouse News Bureau
Elizabeth Grieser (center) and Amber Decker (right) gather signatures for Citizens Not Politicians near the Riffe Center in downtown Columbus.

A group that hopes to change the process used for drawing legislative and congressional district lines will file their signatures Monday to put their plan before voters this fall.

Citizens Not Politicians needs 413,487 valid signatures on petitions to put the constitutional amendment on the November ballot. The group said it will submit 731,000 signatures to the Ohio Secretary of State's office Monday. They’ve been gathering signatures for months.

Under this proposed amendment, a 15-member panel of five Democrats, five Republicans and five independents would be part of a new Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission. Lobbyists, party officials, and politicians would be banned from sitting on that commission. The group is led by former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, and former Justice Yvette McGee-Brown, a Democrat.

Citizens Not Politicians spokesman Chris Davey said the current system allows politicians to pick their voters by gerrymandering districts to benefits them. And he pointed to 2022’s line-drawing process, when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled seven times that maps approved by the Ohio Redistricting Commission were unconstitutional.

A federal court eventually allowed the maps to be used. And in 2023 the Ohio Supreme Court, which no longer included O’Connor, approved the maps for this year’s elections. O’Connor had joined the court’s three Democrats in ruling the maps unconstitutional in 2022. She couldn’t run again because of the age limit of 70 years on elected justices.

This panel would replace the Ohio Redisticting Commission, made up of the governor, auditor and, secretary of state and four state lawmakers. While the goal of the commission when voters approved it in 2015 was to give the minority party more power, the result has been that Republicans who’ve been in charge of state government have dominated the map-drawing process.

The process used to draw the maps has been plagued by controversy and confusion because much was done by politicians, out of public view. Davey said this change would require accountability in the process.

"The people of Ohio are smart. They know a rigged game when they see it,” Davey said. “And the politicians forcing those unconstitutional maps on Ohio voters seven times in a row really energized a lot of people to change this system.”

Currently, Republicans have a 67-32 majority in the Ohio House and 26-7 in the Senate. Republicans also dominate Ohio’s congressional delegation 10-5. Democrats have said Ohio’s maps are among the most gerrymandered maps in the country. But Republicans have noted the GOP has won in statewide elections, where districts aren’t a factor. Republicans have won 88% of elections for statewide offices since 1994.

Republican leaders are already promising to fight the amendment. Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima), who helped draft the amendments that created and empowered the Ohio Redistricting Commission, will be one of those working to defeat the overhaul.

"The people who are making an important decision like this ought to be elected officials who are accountable to the public," Huffman said.

Majority Republicans ran a campaign last August that failed to convince Ohioans to make it much harder for voters to amend the constitution, by requiring 60% approval instead of a simple majority. In arguing for the higher threshold, Republicans had said they expected issues on redistricting and abortion to be put forward.

Another effort to block the redistricting amendment passed in the special legislative session in May, with a ban on contributions to ballot issue campaigns by foreign nationals - including permanent lawful residents known as green card holders. A lawsuit was filed last week claiming the law violates free speech rights in the First Amendment and breaks with U.S. Supreme Court precedent by including green card holders.

Campaign finance filings show "Citizens Not Politicians" has received funds from a progressive dark money group with a Swiss billionaire among its donors. Citizens Not Politicians reported $550,000 in contributions from the Sixteen Thirty Fund on its last filing in January. The Sixteen Thirty Fund is a 501(c)4 non-profit organization that's received contributions from Hansjörg Wyss, who lives in Wyoming but is initially from Switzerland. It's unclear whether he's a green card holder.

Copyright 2024 The Statehouse News Bureau