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Ohio rule allows for the possibility of redrawing congressional maps every 4 years

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Most states redraw congressional district lines every 10 years. But a unique provision in Ohio's state constitution, which was meant to foster bipartisanship, could lead to new maps every four years.

Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow reports.

ANDY CHOW, BYLINE: Ohio lawmakers are drawing up a new congressional district map this month after the previous attempt was ruled unconstitutional last month by the state Supreme Court. Justices said the map gave an unfair advantage to Republicans and went against anti-gerrymandering reforms passed by voters in 2018. The rejected map appeared to favor Republicans in 12 out of the 15 congressional districts drawn. Six states changed their redistricting process since congressional maps were last drawn in 2011. And while Ohio's changes mirrored some of the fair district provisions enacted in other states, there's one very unusual exception. If Ohio's maps, which are drawn by elected officials, do not get bipartisan support, they only last for four years.

HEATHER TAYLOR-MIESLE: Ohio can be bizarre.

CHOW: That's Heather Taylor-Miesle with the Ohio Environmental Council, who was in on negotiations in 2018 when lawmakers and community groups were trying to reach a deal on redistricting reform. She said the threat of a four-year map was intended to encourage Republicans and Democrats to reach a deal that lasts 10 years. But she says that backfired.

TAYLOR-MIESLE: What started off as a claim to encourage bipartisanship has turned into something that is cynical and something that allows cheating.

CHOW: Michael Li, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, says that's because Ohio isn't the swing state it used to be.

MICHAEL LI: Since those reforms first started, Ohio has become a much more reliably Republican state. If you're a Republican in Ohio today looking at the system thinking, my gosh, you know, we have to redraw maps in four years, that's a bet that you're probably willing to take 'cause you're betting that your party will be in control in four years.

CHOW: On the flip side, Democrats who face a GOP supermajority in the state legislature have fallen back on the anti-gerrymandering guardrails to force redraws of maps heavily skewed to Republicans.

Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp, a Republican, emphasizes that the entire redistricting process is new for the state, but says, at least initially, the four-year map provision has not worked.

ROBERT CUPP: It does not look like a four-year map is an incentive to get a 10-year map. In fact, the incentive may be reversed. The incentive may be to do a four-year map and see what happens in four years.

CHOW: Taylor-Miesle, whose group is among the organizations fighting the new congressional district map in court, says Ohio's experiment with four-year maps should be a warning to other states.

TAYLOR-MIESLE: This four-year shenanigan needs not only to be of concern to people who live in the Buckeye State, but the entire nation because this sets up cheating regardless of what party you are a member of.

CHOW: The next draft of Ohio's congressional district map is attracting national attention for the implications it might have on tipping the scales in the U.S. House. The legislature has until February 13. In the meantime, voter rights advocates are debating whether another change is needed to Ohio's redistricting procedure - possibly a push to create an independent commission.

For NPR News, I'm Andy Chow in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUTONE'S "ILENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.