Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, describes a bipartisan agreement on a plan to overhaul how Ohio draws its legislative lines at a news conference early Friday morning Dec. 12, 2014 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. From left: Rep. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron; Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman; Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina and Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima. (AP Photo/Ann Sanner)
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A bipartisan agreement to overhaul the way Ohio draws its legislative districts passed the state Senate early Friday as lawmakers sought to give more balance to a political process long criticized as allowing the party in power to tilt the lines in their favor.
The state alters legislative and congressional district maps every 10 years to reflect population shifts identified by the U.S. Census Bureau, a process called redistricting. Both political parties have acknowledged flaws in Ohio's system in which state lawmakers draw U.S. House districts and a five-member state Apportionment Board creates legislative maps.
The Senate voted 28-1 just after 4 a.m. on a proposal to amend the Ohio Constitution with a new map-making procedure. Republican Sen. Bill Seitz of Cincinnati was the lone no vote.
Under the deal, the legislative lines would be drawn by a seven-member commission made up of the governor, secretary of state, auditor and four legislative appointees. It does not include a new process for congressional lines.
Two minority-party votes would be needed to adopt the legislative boundaries for a 10-year period. Lacking those votes, the majority could draw the maps, but the lines would be temporary.
These boundaries would be in place initially for four years and drawn under stricter criteria. During that time, elections could bring new members to the commission. The members would then reconvene to try again. And should they fail to get minority support this time, the new lines would remain in place for six years and must still adhere to the tougher standards.
Senate President Keith Faber, a Celina Republican, said such impasses have risks for both parties as lawmakers' districts are subject to change.
"It's designed in such a way to encourage agreement," Faber said.
Legislative negotiators have been working to find a fairer way of drawing House and Senate boundaries before the two-year session comes to a close. Faber had hoped to adjourn Thursday, but senators stayed into the night awaiting the agreement in the mostly dark and quiet Capitol.
Ohio's election chief, Secretary of State Jon Husted, said elections would be more competitive and state lawmakers would be more accountable to voters. "The voice of the average voter got stronger today," he said.
Critics contend the current system provides an incentive to whichever party is in control to stack the map in their favor.
Republicans, who control all the statewide offices and Legislature, have dominated the line-drawing process in recent years.
Democrats believed the proposed system would lead to a fairer map-making process. It built upon a bipartisan measure passed by the House last week.
"I think upon passage of this legislation, you'll see that we're going to have more competitive elections and more competitive districts," said Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni of Boardman.
The revised proposal must go back to the House for approval.
State Rep. Matt Huffman, the House Republican's No. 2 leader, believed his GOP majority would support the deal. The House Democratic negotiator, Rep. Vernon Sykes, also expressed optimism and said he was comfortable with the agreement.
Should the measure clear the General Assembly, voters would be asked on November 2015 ballots whether it should be the state's new process.
Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio said she was pleased, but final steps remain with House passage and voter education.
"It's not over," she told reporters. "This is just another hurdle."