This past year has seen Ohio play host to a number of struggles over the state's redistricting process, with certain advocates not shy about pointing toward Athens County in the 15th U.S. Congressional district as an example of gerrymandering.
Last September, the Ohio Apportionment Board, controlled by Republican state officeholders, approved district lines that included Athens in an inverted C-shaped district that stretched around Columbus as far west as Clark County.
Those lines were redrawn after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Democrats would have the opportunity to petition to put the remap on the November ballot for a yes or no vote this year.
But even after that compromise, some state groups weren't satisfied that the state's gerrymandering problem has been solved.
The Voters First coalition announced earlier this week that they now have enough signatures to qualify a proposed state constitutional amendment changing the way Ohio draws legislative and congressional district lines.
The coalition originally fell more than 130,000 signatures short of the 385,000 valid ones needed for the amendment to get on the ballot. On Monday, the group announced they had filed an additional 301,000 signatures and are now confident they will meet requirements.
The proposal from Voters First would take away the district-drawing powers from elected officials on the Ohio Apportionment Board in favor of a 12-person citizen commission.
The proposal creates a new Ohio Independent Redistricting Commission, that would include four Democrats, four Republicans and four independents. If the issue passes, any Ohioan not related to a political candidate, and who has voted in two of the last three elections, could apply to be a member. Each party's leaders will be able to eliminate up to three candidates each. Aside from that, a panel of eight state appeals court judges would choose all but three members of the commission.
The commission would be charged with drawing districts to minimize splitting up of counties and other political subdivisions, and also in a way that reflects voter demographics and history.
A release from the League of Women Voters characterizes Voters First as a non-partisan movement led by the LoWV.
"The amendment will end the broken system where politicians draw district lines to benefit themselves and their cronies, and replace it with an independent, non-partisan citizens commission," the League said in their release. "Under the amendment, district lines will be drafted by this independent, non-partisan commission in a transparent and fair process with extensive public input. Politicians, lobbyists and political insiders will be barred from serving on the commission, ensuring that no politician or party can unfairly benefit from the way the lines are drawn."
The Ohio Republican Party has taken a dim view of the Voters First effort and continued to question the authenticity of the signatures collected, in a statement from chair Bob Bennett Monday.
"We will continue our ongoing examination of the petition signatures. With all the fraud and cheating we witnessed to this point, we would be surprised if Ohio Voters First made it to the ballot in November," Bennett said. "They are just another special interest snake in the grass and sadly, they took a noble cause and twisted it for partisan gain."
Democratic leaders in the Ohio House and Senate released a joint statement calling on Secretary of State Jon Husted to remain neutral while his office verifies the Voters First petitions.
In a letter, Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney and House Minority Leader Armond Budish point to what they characterize as Husted's stating he doesn't believe the Voters First amendment is the solution for Ohio's flawed process for drawing districts.
"As the statewide officer charged with ensuring our elections are fair and unbiased, we believe it is highly inappropriate and irresponsible for you to comment on the merits of this, or any initiative or referendum, while your office is verifying signatures," they wrote. "We believe your neutrality is absolutely necessary given the fact you just participated in the redistricting process that would be replaced by this ballot issue."
Voters First chair Catherine Turcer said that the response from voters to the proposed amendment has been tremendous.
"Ohioans are eager to clean up a system that is rigged in favor of the politicians, lobbyist and big donors," she said. "We will be on the ballot in November and the voters will have the chance to say 'yes' to taking the power to draw districts out of the hands of politicians and put it in the hands of the people."
Republicans have characterized the Voters First effort as partisanship itself.
A group called Protect Your Vote Ohio was recently formed to oppose the efforts of Voters First. In a message to supporters, Protect Your Vote Ohio wrote, "Voters First Ohio is an organization supported by liberal organizations like We Are Ohio, ProgressOhio, and a number of unions like the AFL-CIO, SEIU, and AFSCME."
Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University professor and co-author of the Voters First Amendment, hit back.
"The voters of Ohio shouldn't be fooled. Protect Your Vote Ohio is nothing more than an organization created by the same politicians, lobbyists and their political cronies who drew our current, highly controversial, congressional and legislative lines in private," he wrote in a press release. "Their purpose is to preserve a system that exists solely to protect the power of politicians and their own political interests."
Campaign finance reports dated up to June 30 show that Voters First spent nearly $1.5 million and had roughly $170,000 on hand as of that date. The records show it received more than $763,000 from the Ohio Education Association, a teacher's union. The aforementioned We Are Ohio contributed $250,000 to the effort.
Meanwhile, Ann Henkener, a redistricting specialist with the LoWV, defended the coalition's proposal to the Associated Press.
"We're happy to have support from anybody who wants to help us achieve our nonpartisan goals," she said.
Currently, the Ohio Legislature holds the responsibility for approving U.S. House lines, and the five-member Ohio Apportionment Board is comprised of the governor, secretary of state, auditor and a Republican and Democratic legislative leader.