Republicans, Democrats and a coalition of redistricting-reform advocates reached a deal to put a proposal on the May ballot aimed at curtailing partisan gerrymandering of Ohio’s congressional map.

After weekend negotiations that capped off about two weeks of heavy talks, the Senate on Monday night voted 31-0 for the compromise plan. The House is likely to approve it Tuesday, one day ahead of the Feb. 7 deadline to qualify the issue for the May statewide ballot.

The current redistricting process requires no minority-party support and has almost no rules, other than requirements regarding district population and prohibiting conflict with the federal Voting Rights Act. The new proposal would initially require 50 percent of the minority party in each chamber to approve a map for 10 years. It also would limit how often counties can be split into multiple congressional seats, and it would require public hearings and the ability for the public to submit maps.

Under that plan, 65 counties cannot be divided, 18 can be divided once and five can be divided twice into three congressional districts. Currently, many counties are split, while Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Democrat-rich northeast Ohio are split into four districts as Republicans sliced them up for partisan advantage.

"Far fewer counties can be divided under this map," said Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, a leader in crafting the plan.

If the legislature is unable to come to a bipartisan agreement, the process would be handed to a seven-member commission consisting of the governor, auditor, secretary of state and four lawmakers, where a 10-year map would require at least two minority-party votes.

If that fails, the process goes back to the legislature, where it would require a three-fifths vote in each chamber, including one-third of each minority caucus, to pass a 10-year map.

If there's still no deal, the majority can draw a four-year map on its own, but it would be under stricter criteria, including prohibitions against several acts — "unduly" splitting counties and other jurisdictions, drawing a district that favors or disfavors a party, or drawing districts to favor incumbents. That process also would require the majority to formally justify why it decided to draw each district, which advocates say would hold them accountable to the courts and the public.

The process, Huffman said, "allows the most number of people to weigh in in a significant way."

If the majority moves forward on its own, he said, "essentially the mapmaker is going to say, 'I can't do something that a judge is going to say I didn't have to do.'"

Under the current map, drawn by Republicans in 2011, the GOP has held a firm grip on 12 of 16 congressional seats. The districts are heavily gerrymandered, largely noncompetitive, and are meant to ensure Republicans control the bulk of the Ohio delegation.

In 2016, no congressional race in Ohio was closer than 18 points, and 14 of 16 races were decided by 30 points or more.

The Fair Districts = Fair Elections coalition provided the leverage to get a deal done, collecting about 200,000 signatures of registered Ohio voters for a November redistricting ballot issue. If this issue passes in May, there will not be a November issue.

“This is a huge deal. Institutional gerrymandering in Ohio has been replaced by a bipartisan, fair solution for all," said Heather Taylor-Miesle, executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council and a leader of the Fair Districts coalition. The key, she said, is a bipartisan process that prevents favoring one politician or party and keeps communities together.

"There are a lot of backstops to prevent bad behavior. We feel this compels the General Assembly to make good, fair decisions on behalf of the citizens of Ohio," she said.

Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, said the agreement makes a number of positive changes to the current system.

"No one can draw a 10-year map without meaningful bipartisanship," he said. "There are still concerns, but we can work those out. You can't get everything you want, especially when you're in the deep minority."

At times, the talks appeared to fall apart. Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, said of Huffman, "At some points during the discussion, I thought he had lost his mind."

But both sides had motivation to continue.

Republicans are worried that the Fair Districts proposal would not only implement a process they oppose, but also could drive Democratic turnout.

Meanwhile, the Fair Elections coalition is concerned that Republicans might spend big to defeat their issue in November, something they’ve done twice in years past, leaving the current partisan process in place.

With slow population growth, Ohio lost one congressional seat in 2011 and is expected to lose another in 2021 when the map is drawn again.

jsiegel@dispatch.com

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