Ohio governor signs new congressional district map into law

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law a map of new congressional districts on Saturday that will be in effect for the next four years, despite objections from Democrats and voting rights groups.

DeWine said in a statement that, compared with other proposals from House and Senate lawmakers from both parties, the Senate legislation he signed “makes the most progress to produce a fair, compact, and competitive map."

The redistricting measure cleared the state Legislature along party lines with House approval Thursday after a breakneck sprint through both chambers, amid praise from majority Republicans.

Democrats blasted the Republican-led mapmaking process as unfair, partisan and cloaked in secrecy. The Senate approved the bill Tuesday, only about 16 hours after the new map was released. The nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the map an F grade.

The new law creates at most three safe Democratic districts out of 15 new U.S. House seats in a state where voters are split roughly 54% Republican, 46% Democratic.

Populous Cuyahoga and Hamilton counties — home to Cleveland and Cincinnati, respectively, and their concentrations of Democratic voters — are divided three ways each. Franklin County, home to Columbus, is divided two ways, and the western Cleveland suburbs in Lorain County are part of a district that stretches to the Indiana border, a nearly 3-hour drive.

DeWine, however, said Saturday that the new map “has fewer county splits and city splits" than recent proposals and the current congressional map. He said it keeps Lucas and Stark counties and the Mahoning Valley within single congressional districts “for the first time in decades" and keeps Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, and Toledo “all whole within the same congressional map for the first time since the 1840s.”

State Rep. D.J. Swearingen, a Republican, defended the map during debate Thursday as fair, constitutional and not unduly favoring either political party or its incumbents. He echoed the arguments of sponsoring GOP Sen. Rob McColley in calling the plan superior in competitiveness and in the spirit of a 2018 constitutional amendment.

“If you have the right candidate on the right issues, you can win a competitive district,” McColley said. “Whereas, the Democratic map that was offered in the House offered a determined outcome.”

Fair Districts Ohio, a coalition of voting-rights groups and labor organizations, had called on the governor to strike down the bill. Executive director Jen Miller of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, a member organization, said instead of “bipartisan, transparent redistricting" leaders had “disrespected voters, trampled the Ohio Constitution and rigged the congressional map to serve partisan, political operatives rather than fairly represent Ohioans.”

The Ohio Democratic Party on Saturday blasted the governor for signing the bill, with party chair Elizabeth Walters accusing DeWine of “naked, partisan self-interest."

“DeWine and the Ohio GOP are doing everything and anything they can to prevent voters from holding them accountable at the ballot box while they continue to betray Ohioans at every turn,” Walters said.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley accused the governor of being “more interested in maintaining political power and appeasing his party ahead of a contentious primary than respecting the will of Ohioans."

Under a new process established under a popular 2018 constitutional amendment, creating a 10-year map — the ideal — would have required robust Democratic support. Without it, the plan will last only four years.

States must redraw their congressional districts every 10 years to reflect new population numbers. Under this year’s U.S. Census results, delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ohio lost one seat in Congress starting next year, taking it from 16 to 15.