After one victory, Ohio Democrats take aim at Republican redistricting map

Ohio Democrats plan to take full advantage of Black Friday’s holiday shopping traffic by asking voters to sign their petitions to force a referendum on what they described as a GOP “gerrymandered” congressional redistricting map.

The Republican-controlled Ohio legislature approved new congressional district lines in September, but Democrats are gathering signatures for a November 2012 referendum. Democrats were given 90 days from the law’s signing, which ends on Christmas Day, to turn in more than 230,000 valid signatures.

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Ohio Democratic Party communications director Seth Bringman said the party is aiming to have all of the signatures by Dec. 23 to avoid working on the holiday. Bringman said the party has surpassed 100,000 signatures after work this past weekend and that, despite the holidays, it would not have any trouble collecting enough signatures.

“What we found out is that once voters see for themselves what the map looks like and how gerrymandered and unfair it is, that they’re very eager to sign the petition to stop this map,” Bringman said. “Then in November 2012, voters would have the opportunity to decide if this map would lead to fair representation for us in Congress. We’re confident that they would say no.”

If Democrats don’t get enough valid signatures for the referendum, the GOP-drawn map would take effect Christmas Day — a present for congressional Republicans rather than the lump of coal Democrats have in mind.

“It’s going to be existing law as soon as the 90 days gets here,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio). “So it’s pretty exciting. This is the legislature’s Christmas present to the members of Congress.”

Ohio lost two of its 18 seats in reapportionment due to slow population growth. The Republican map — approved in September — pitted two Democratic and two Republican incumbents against each other, securing 12 GOP favored seats and just four safe seats for Democrats.

Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) district was practically untouched. But freshman Stivers’ new district grew from three counties to 13, became more conservative and is now an oddly shaped, backward letter “c.”

“It’s not the prettiest map you’ll ever see but it’s also not the ugliest,” Stivers said. “I feel pretty comfortable that the September map meets constitutional scrutiny. The legislators’ task was not to make a map that was pretty, it was to make a map that met the Voter’s Rights Act and met constitutional scrutiny and I think they’ve done that pretty well.”

Despite losing control of the legislature and governorship in 2010, Democrats and unions won big at the ballot box earlier this month when the GOP bill to limit state workers’ collective bargaining rights was overwhelmingly repealed through a referendum.

Ohio Democrats appear to have collected enough signatures to force another referendum next year on GOP legislation making changes in state election laws. They submitted an additional 166,000 signatures Tuesday to the 221,572 already validated by the Ohio secretary of state’s office for that referendum.

The election law changes enacted by Republicans reduced the number of early voting day from 35 to 17 — something Democrats said disadvantaged working-class voters.

“This is the third petition drive that Democratic activists and allies have been involved in [this year],” Bringman said of the redistricting effort. “We have a team of volunteers in this state who know very well how to circulate a petition because many of them have done it twice already.”

If Democrats succeed in collecting the 231,150 valid signatures, then a referendum will be set and a judge would have to decide whether to use the current GOP map or draw a new one.

Democrats are hoping it doesn’t come to that and that the threat of a referendum will force legislative Republicans to negotiate a compromise with Democrats.

“If it’s possible to reach a consensus, I think with both parties coming together and trying to be a little more reasonable what they arrive at would be the best course of action,” said former Gov. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio). “But that requires a certain level of reasonableness that I’m not sure exists.”

Strickland said if a compromise isn’t reached, one possible outcome could be an at-large, statewide vote.

“We’ve got a problem, we can’t just go back to the existing lines because we’re losing two congressional seats, so my understanding is -- and I’m not an elections expert -- but it’s possible for the courts to say, ‘We’ll just have everyone elected at-large,’” Strickland said. “That would really be an interesting situation.”

Strickland added that members of Congress can’t possibly know what to expect.

“Even the Republicans that have come out of the current map drawing in great shape would have no way of knowing what would happen to them if, for example, our members were elected statewide,” Strickland said. “I think John Boehner would be at risk. I think John Boehner would stand a reasonable chance of losing if Ohio were to elect its congressional members statewide.”

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Because of the uncertainty, the state legislature had to split the primary. The Senate primary will be held on March 6 — Super Tuesday — and a presidential and congressional primary on June 12. The presidential primary was moved because candidates must collect so many signatures in each congressional district to make it on the ballot — something that would not have been possible by Super Tuesday.

Stivers said he understood why the legislature split the primary, but he said he wasn’t happy that it would cost Ohio $15 million to conduct two of them.

“I don’t love splitting the primary but it kind of is what it is and you obviously have to have congressional line for people to run for Congress,” Stivers said. “There is certainly a lot of uncertainty out there and it’s obviously a little uncomfortable for a lot of folks.”