COLUMBUS — A U.S. district court three-judge panel will take over a lawsuit from Republican voters asking the federal courts to take over the redistricting process.
A federal lawsuit to use the rejected legislative maps that were struck down was paused while the case waited on the Ohio Supreme Court, but as of Friday, the U.S. District Court Southern District of Ohio Eastern Division concluded the case should move on to a three-judge panel “to determine the path forward.”
A group of Republican voters sued to force the redistricting process into the federal court’s hands, rather than leave it in the Ohio Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. On Friday, they asked to add to the court record an update on the events regarding redistricting, and said the rejection of the maps by supreme court was “threatening the work of the Secretary of State to carry out elections.”
“The Secretary of State indicated that it (was) too late to change course from the third plan and still have a May 3 primary,” plaintiffs in the case wrote.
LaRose didn’t express confidence in the redistricting process going forward in his own filing to the court, even as a member of the Ohio Redistricting Commission himself.
“Given the history of the state legislative redistricting proceedings to date, the Secretary believes that it would be prudent for the federal court to begin proceedings … so that a primary – and ultimately a general – election can be held in the event that the state proceedings ultimately fail,” the briefing to the federal court stated.
LaRose said the only way the state legislative districts could make it on the ballots for May 3 was with the third plan.
“At present, the primary election for those districts will have to be held at a later date,” LaRose wrote.
The same day the court decided to send the case to a panel of judges, Ohio’s Secretary of State announced that his office has finalized an agreement with the federal government regarding military absentee ballots on the day of the deadline to begin the process.
Secretary Frank LaRose sent a letter on Friday to Gov. Mike DeWine and legislative leaders from the House and Senate confirming that an agreement had been reached with the U.S. Department of Justice. This agreement is connected to legislation passed last week to allow county boards of election to send out absentee ballots to military and overseas Ohioans up to 30 days before the election.
The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act requires each state to send out ballots within 45 days of the election, but because of the chaos related to redistricting, LaRose said the election boards needed more time.
“With this agreement in place, the Department of Justice acknowledges these accommodations are sufficient to conduct the primary election as scheduled, and delivery of the UOCAVA ballots will begin upon the finalization of the May 3rd ballot,” LaRose wrote in the letter to the General Assembly and the governor.
Those accommodations won’t include the legislative races because of the recent ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court striking down redistricting maps for the third time.
LaRose also said without action from a federal court, only the statewide election races (like governor and treasurer, for example), congressional races and local contests will be on the ballots.
Congressional races could be in trouble as well, if the state’s highest court decides those are also invalid. The court is currently considering the second revision of the map, sent to them earlier this month after the court struck down the first attempt by the Ohio Redistricting Commission.
“Our bipartisan boards of elections have been doing incredible work in their preparations for the May 3rd primary, and will continue to prepare for the primary unless directed otherwise by the General Assembly or a court order,” LaRose tweeted on Friday afternoon.
It’s not clear how another primary will happen, since Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Bob Cupp have both said there isn’t an “appetite” for a change to the date of the primary, and Huffman’s offer of two different primary dates “went over like a lead balloon,” he told reporters on multiple occasions.
According to Ohio law, the General Assembly takes the lead on any changes to the “time, place and manner” of elections in the state.
The Ohio Redistricting Commission is scheduled to convene in a series of meetings this week to restart the legislative mapping process, the deadline for which is March 28.