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Witnesses malign Ohio’s gerrymandered maps at hearing

Forum set for today at Rio Grande

CLEVELAND (AP) — More than 120 activists, scholars, pastors, students and average citizens attended the first hearing Monday of a new panel charged with redrawing Ohio’s state legislative districts for the next 10 years, most advocating new maps that are more fair and representative.

Witnesses at the first of nine public hearings of the Ohio Redistricting Commission at Cleveland State University maligned the current gerrymandered maps and called the process disheartening, embarrassing, demoralizing and unfair.

“My vote doesn’t count,” Daisie Reish, 77, of Grafton, told the panel. “I call my representatives constantly and they never vote for me. They always vote the opposite.”

Person after person — young, old, Black, Muslim, immigrant and people whose families have lived in the area for generations — told the panel they feel disadvantaged and unheard by their government as a result of the current district maps.

Tom Hach, executive director of Free Ohio Now, expressed a different point of view, complaining that all nine of the commission’s hearing will be held at universities, which he said are not places that attract a diversity of political participation.

He called the process unfair and said commissioners, the majority of whom are Republicans, were being bullied by Democrats. The group has protested public health measures like business closures during the pandemic.

An Associated Press analysis found that Republican politicians used census data after election victories 10 years ago to draw voting districts that gave them a greater political advantage in more states than either party had in the past 50 years. Voters in Ohio have some of the nation’s most gerrymandered maps, according to the AP analysis.

Those voters approved constitutional amendments in 2015 and 2018 that created a new process for drawing both state legislative and congressional district maps this year and set up the independent commission.

An audience member heckled Hach as he was speaking and security then asked him to move because he was not wearing a mask.

Later, Chibuzo Petty, 31, of Middleburg Heights, said it was wrong for the group to chide Hach and that the timing and location of the daytime hearing meant it was dominated by “liberal elites” who are either retired or have the privilege of taking a day off work.

Christos Ioannou, 20, of Shaker Heights, likened his feeling living in a majority-Democratic area represented mostly by Republicans to a scene in “Twilight Zone,” where a man sees a gremlin on the wing of a plane and no one else does.

“I just want you to see how messed up this all is, how disturbing it is, how undemocratic it all is, because this has to be representative,” he testified. “What’s been going on this past decade, it’s disgusting, it’s abhorrent and it scares me that so many people are willing to show up today and speak out against this and odds are it stays the same or gets worse.”

Participants also complained that the public hearings were only scheduled days before an initial Sept. 1 deadline. The panel must finish redrawing legislative districts by then, a feat they have admitted will be difficult to impossible.

Commissioners have blamed the scheduling issues on the delayed release of 2020 Census data. Maps loaded with the new Census data are still being assembled by experts at Ohio University.

The General Assembly has to complete a new map of the state’s congressional districts, which will be reduced from 16 to 15 as a result of lagging population growth, by Sept. 30.

The panel would only get involved in that second process if state lawmakers cannot come to an agreement.

High-profile commission members — including the House speaker, Senate president, governor and secretary of state — sent surrogates to Monday’s meeting, which also drew criticism.

Co-chair Sen. Vernon Sykes, an Akron Democrat, led the hearing.

John Fortney, a spokesperson for Republican Senate President Matt Huffman, said Huffman felt it was best to send senators from each of the areas where the hearings are being held and that was the case Monday.

The forums continue this week as follows:

• Today: Ohio University-Zanesville’s Campus Center, 9:30 a.m.; Rio Grande Community College, 2:30 p.m.

• Thursday: Ohio State University-Lima’s Life Science Building, 9:30 a.m.; University of Toledo, 2:30 p.m.

• Friday: University of Akron, 9:30 a.m.; Ohio State University-Mansfield’s Riedel Hall, 2:30 p.m.

All public hearings will also be broadcast live.

Additional hearings will be scheduled to gather input on a proposed map, once the commission has that ready.