By Wendy Underhill
In the 2010s, the Ohio General Assembly took the unusual steps of putting redistricting reform measures before Buckeye voters—twice.
Those efforts came after several failed reform attempts in recent decades, and a 200-year history of redistricting chaos in Ohio. I use that word, chaos, because that’s how Frank Strigari, chief legal counsel for the Ohio Senate, characterized Ohio’s contentious and colorful redistricting history in a just-published article. (Strigari is a staff co-chair for NCSL’s Redistricting and Elections Standing Committee.)
Ohio voters may have a third redistricting amendment to decide on in August, pending legislative action. Why one more change? Because redistricting data from the U.S. Census Bureau will be almost five months late. This fine-grained data was due to the states on April 1, 2021, by federal statute, but because of the pandemic and a host of other factors, the bureau missed that deadline and has promised to provide the data to the states by Aug. 16.
With that long delay, legislative leaders in Ohio realized how unlikely it would be that the state could meet its constitutionally mandated Sept. 15 deadline for drawing new legislative districts in Ohio. Usually, redistricting takes months, but the new timing gives Ohio just 30 days to draw its maps. A compressed schedule puts a particular squeeze on opportunities for public input. The proposed measure would move back the deadline by a month or more.
Last decade’s measures were far more sweeping than this one, and both were decided by overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly, and of the voters.
To be precise, Ohio’s first measure, 2015’s Issue 1, proposed a constitutional amendment to require bipartisan support from Ohio’s newly formed redistricting commission for any new legislative map (in addition to strict line-drawing rules). The measure passed 28-1 in the Senate and 82-8 in the House. Voters handed the measure a 71.5% approval.
The second measure, 2018’s Issue 1, proposed a constitutional amendment to change how congressional districts are drawn. It gave the General Assembly the first crack at the job while setting a high bar for a bipartisan vote and spelled out backup procedures if the bar couldn’t be cleared. The measure passed 31-0 in the Senate and 83-10 in the House, and was approved by 74.9% of voters.
Whether the extension will be approved by the legislature—and whether it will have the same overwhelming bipartisan support as the two substantive reforms from a few years ago—will be decided in the next few days. Senate President Matt Huffman (R) is shopping an extension proposal to the other legislative leaders, and there isn’t much time to get the measure on Ohio’s August special election ballot.
Other states also face constitutional conundrums based on census delays and constitutional deadlines. California and Oregon both received permission from their state Supreme Courts to extend their deadlines. New Jersey, which faced a particularly hard schedule because it runs its legislative races in odd-numbered years, went to the voters in 2020 to get an extension.
Vermont was able to change its deadline through statute. Arkansas and Indiana have extended their regular sessions until such time as it can complete its redistricting. In general, all states are feeling the pinch—but each state is responding in its own way.
For more on census delays, redistricting deadlines and legislative action on redistricting, see NCSL’s webpage, Census Delays and the Impact on Redistricting.
NCSL’s final redistricting seminar will take place in person, July 14-16, in Salt Lake City. Join us!
Wendy Underhill is the director of NCSL's Elections and Redistricting Program.