Legislative districts to expand geographically to meet new population targets

·7 min read

Aug. 14—COLUMBUS — As a new panel prepares to redraw Ohio's legislative districts, expect the northwest corner of the state to remain an island of Toledo Democrats amid a sea of Republican lawmakers.

New rules adopted by voters and the region's location abutting Michigan and Indiana will limit what the seven-member, Republican-majority Ohio Redistricting Commission can do here.

The need to keep a single Ohio Senate seat wholly within Lucas County means all three of the current Democrat-held House districts that make up the 11th Senate district will remain here, too.

The population of both Toledo and Lucas County shrank over the last decade, according to U.S. Census figures released Thursday, so the three city districts will have to expand geographically to meet new population targets.

As a result, look for the western Lucas County suburban footprint of the 47th District held by the county's sole Republican, Rep. Derek Merrin of Monclova Township, to shrink. It could pick up even more Fulton County territory to the west or a piece of Wood County to the south.

In addition to the county's western suburbs, Mr. Merrin's district currently includes all but the Delta-Swanton corner of Fulton.

"It's not going to change one iota of his electorate," said Rep. Mike Sheehy (D., Oregon), whose 46th District now stretches from Jerusalem Township and Oregon through South Toledo to Maumee and Springfield Township to the city's west.

If Mr. Sheehy has his way, his district would pick up more South Toledo territory to add population. But there could be competition for that territory from the 44th, held by Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson. The 44th has one of the largest concentrations of African-Americans, something the redistricting commission must work not to dilute under federal law.

Republicans currently hold super-majorities of 64-35 in the Ohio House of Representatives and 25-8 in the Senate, and it would be difficult to draw maps that could further tighten the GOP's grip on the Ohio Statehouse. New rules adopted by voters in 2015 say the commission cannot draw maps "primarily" for partisan benefit.

But Democrats should not expect much of an opportunity to expand their presence in northwest Ohio, where it would be difficult to find a base around which to build a Democratic district outside of Toledo.

The 45th District is held by Rep. Lisa Sobecki, a second-term Democrat living in the Point Place neighborhood. Her district may have to expand westward into Merrin territory to pick up population.

"I feel if I pick up a district that is more Republican-leaning, I'm fine with that," she said. "I can work across the aisle and have demonstrated that in my two and a half years at the Statehouse and while on the school board. ... When Lucas County and northwest Ohio can flourish, that means working families are flourishing, and I will continue to be a voice to represent northwest Ohio."

While each political caucus typically looks to protect its incumbents' residences, the final map a decade ago placed the homes of then Reps. Teresa Fedor and Matt Szollosi in the same district, forcing Ms. Fedor to move in order to remain a resident of her own district. Ms. Fedor now represents the 11th Senate District.

Much of northwest Ohio is rural and Republican red with many House and Senate districts having to expand their borders to pick up population.

One exception is Wood County, which is currently a district unto itself.

Localized data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday showed Wood to be the only county in the region to experience significant population growth over the last decade. Most of the rest of the growth in Ohio happened in the central and southwestern portions of the state.

Wood County can no long squeeze entirely into one district of roughly 119,000 people. The rules allow for only a 5 percent deviation from the population target. If it is to remain a mostly Wood County district, the 3rd is going to have to surrender some territory, possibly to Mr. Merrin's 47th to the north.

"It is an honor and privilege to serve, and I remain committed to serving the constituents of the district now and when the process determines what the makeup of the district will be," said Rep. Haraz Ghanbari (R., Perrysburg), who represents the 3rd.

Allen County is also currently a stand-alone House district, the 4th held by House Speaker Bob Cupp (R., Lima). But Allen has lost enough population that the 4th will have to either pick up population by swallowing a piece of an adjacent county or be spliced between districts.

The latter is unlikely given that Mr. Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman both hail from Lima and serve on the commission holding the pencil — or computer mouse.

And there's the perennial question of what to do with the city of Fostoria, which straddles Wood, Hancock, and Sandusky counties but is now wholly within the current 88th House District consisting of all of Sandusky County and most of Seneca. The 88th is represented by freshman Rep. Gary Click (R., Vickery).

New remapping rules etched into the Ohio Constitution in 2015 discourages the splitting of municipalities and limits opportunities to split counties.

Fostoria could wholly shift into the Wood-based 3rd or the 83rd now consisting of Hancock, Hardin, and northern Logan counties and held by Rep. Jon Cross (R., Kenton). It will depend on each district's population needs as borders shift from the north and west to pick up territory.

"With the new rules in place, there's a real limitation on how this map can be drawn," Mr. Huffman said. "In the past we've seen a lot of strange things — cutouts that come at the request of local people in the community. But from whomever those requests come from, the answer now to a lot of them is going to be we can't do that."

For instance, he noted that the 1st Senate district, represented by Sen. Rob McColley (R., Napoleon), in the rural northwest corner will not look like it does now. The district currently splits three counties — Fulton, Auglaize, and Logan.

"There have to be some divisions where population variance is within constitutional groups, but there will certainly be fewer splits," Mr. Huffman said. "Fostoria, for instance. We will probably try to keep Fostoria whole in Hancock, Wood, or Sandusky county."

The long-delayed, population, racial, voting-age, and other demographic data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau will now be distilled by Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service into useable precinct and political subdivision data. That process could take two weeks.

The refined numbers are needed as the commission applies new rules affecting the splitting of counties, municipalities, and townships.

The redistricting commission — with a 5-2 Republican majority — consists of Gov. Mike DeWine, Auditor Keith Faber, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, and a Democrat and Republican each from the Senate and House. It faces an initial Sept. 1 deadline to pass General Assembly maps that have the buy-in of both Democrats on the panel for a map that would last the next 10 years until after the 2030 U.S. Census.

If those minority votes aren't forthcoming, the commission would then have until Sept. 15 to try again for a bipartisan map or pass one with a simple majority vote. The latter map could last just four years before the whole process would have to start over.

The panel has scheduled 10 public hearings, two a day, from Aug. 23 to 27. Two are set for northwest Ohio on Aug. 26.

The first will take place at Ohio State University-Lima in Room 100 of the Life Science Building, 4240 Campus Drive from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. That will be followed from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. with another at the University of Toledo, 2801 Bancroft St.

The legislative remap process differs from that for a new congressional district map. That would be drawn by the General Assembly and passed like any other bill using a different set of voter-approved rules and deadlines.

While Ohio's population grew 2.3 percent over the last decade, the state will lose one of its 16 congressional districts to a faster-growing state.

First Published August 14, 2021, 1:27pm

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