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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: The trickle-down effects of Ohio's redistricting mess

A poll worker cleans a voting station after a voter left the Fairfield Greens South Trace Golf Course on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Cincinnati.
Aaron Doster
A poll worker cleans a voting station after a voter left the Fairfield Greens South Trace Golf Course on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Cincinnati. Boards of elections around the state are anticipating it will be challenge to find poll workers to work a second primary date this year.

The people who do the hard work of putting on Ohio's elections don't get enough credit for a long tradition of running fair and professional elections, and doing it so efficiently that no one dare accuse this state of tolerating large-scale voter fraud.

They are Republicans and they are Democrats and they work side-by-side every day in 88 county boards of elections to ensure that our elections in Ohio are fair, above board and transparent.

And now, because of a months-long confrontation between the Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission and a four-member majority of the Ohio Supreme Court, those folks know they are going to have to organize a second primary election, but they have no idea when that second primary will be.

It's really not fair to those people. Or to the voters, for that matter.

"We're in uncharted waters now,'' said Sherry Poland, the director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections. "We can guess at when the second primary will be, but we don't know for certain."

How do they plan for an election with no date? How do they recruit small armies of poll workers? How do they make sure there are enough polling places? How do they deal with the estimated $20 million it will take statewide to hold a second primary?

So many questions, so few answers.

The confusion comes because the Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission have repeatedly proposed state legislative district maps that the Ohio Supreme Court has found unconstitutional under the new redistricting system overwhelmingly approved by Ohio voters in 2015.

Now, the Ohio Supreme Court is considering a fourth set of maps submitted by four Republicans on the commission that is similar in many ways to the third set of maps that have already been found unconstitutional.

All 88 county boards of elections had already certified candidates for the Ohio House and Senate for the May 3 primary. But now, they can't be on that ballot because there has been no map deemed to be constitutional.

So, all 88 counties were ordered by Frank LaRose, Ohio's Secretary of State, to strip all of the candidates who filed for state legislative offices back in February off the May 3 ballot.

That means a second primary will have to be held to choose party candidates for the Ohio House, the Ohio Senate and the state central committees of the political parties, with a new deadline set for candidates to file petitions to run.

If this sounds like a mess to you, there is a good reason. Because it is a mess. A great big one.

All they need to sort this out is for the Ohio Supreme Court to sign off on the fourth set of maps — don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen — or for a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court of Southern Ohio to decide, in a hearing scheduled for April 20, if they will intervene in the case and pick a set of maps.

House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima) says he is leaving it up to the federal court to make its ruling on Ohio's new state legislative district maps before state lawmakers decide what happens next with a second primary.

In the meantime, the people who do the actual work of putting on elections — the board of elections employees — are left holding the bag.

"It is frustrating,'' said Brian Sleeth, director of the Warren County Board of Elections. "I'd just like to be able to get a normal election under our belts."

Sleeth and Poland are president and vice president, respectively, of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, an organization that lobbies the legislature in the interests of the people who work in Ohio's 88 county boards of elections.

In February, Sleeth and Poland sent a letter to the leaders of the Ohio General Assembly essentially pleading with the legislature to push back the May 3 primary because the matter of maps — which could have been settled last fall — was still an open question.

To no one's surprise, the leadership of the Republican super-majority in the legislature ignored the Ohio Association of Election Officials' plea and did nothing.

For now, most county election officials are keeping their fingers crossed that the date of the second primary will be August 2.

The first Tuesday after the first Monday in August has been an official election date in Ohio for many years. But it's rare for there to be countywide elections in August; usually it ends up being a small handful of ballot issues and most voters have nothing to vote on.

But, as Poland pointed out, there is at least an official schedule for an August election on the Ohio Secretary of State's website that county election officials can use as a guide.

"We can make contingency plans for that date; and we've already started doing that, without knowing if it will really be the second primary date,'' Poland said. "It's better than nothing."

Sleeth said he is rooting hard for an August 2 primary date.

"If it’s not August 2, we're really in trouble," Sleeth said.

That's about as far as it can be pushed back without bumping into the official schedule for the November general election.

"It's really going to be a challenge getting enough poll workers for a countywide election in August,'' Sleeth said. "There's been some talk of raising poll worker pay for the second primary, but I'm not sure that will work. You can't raise the pay for a second primary and take it away from the people who work the November election. That wouldn't go over very well."

Poll workers, polling locations, candidate filing deadlines, voter registration deadlines — all the complex details of putting on an election across 88 counties in Ohio.

These people work hard enough as it is.

It's really a shame that they are being treated like pinballs in an arcade machine.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.