Ohio elections chief pressed for position on May 3 primary

Julie Carr Smyth
Associated Press

Columbus, Ohio – A panel of federal judges pressed top Ohio elections officials on Wednesday to identify a timeline that would allow for delaying the May 3 primary election and under which legislative map to hold it, calling into question their willingness to grant a request by a group of Republican voters to uphold district boundaries already declared unconstitutional by another court.

Coursing through the tense, hourslong hearing was the panel’s frustration with the reticence of Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, his elections director and their lawyer to declare a position on the matter.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks to the Fairfield County Lincoln Republican Club in Pickerington, Ohio, Thursday, March 24, 2022.

“We’re used to people coming to this court of redress to tell us what they want,” said U.S. District Court Chief Judge Algenon Marbley. “You’re the defendant,” Judge Benjamin Beaton reminded LaRose’s lawyer, Jonathan Blanton.

Judges broke midday to allow Blanton to call LaRose, both the state’s election chief and a member of the repeatedly court-defying Ohio Redistricting Commission, to pin down his opinions.

Complicating matters for the panel is that the unconstitutional maps before it – the third set approved by the Ohio Redistricting Commission – was superseded Monday by yet another plan. The fourth set of maps was again challenged Tuesday as an unconstitutional gerrymander in the Ohio Supreme Court, where the commission has been given until Monday to defend itself against contempt for violating justices’ orders.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Amanda Grandjean, who directs Ohio’s elections, told Marbley, Beaton and the third federal judge, Amul Thapar, that Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections need a minimum of 74 days to administer an election.

That includes 60 days for public-facing processes, such as candidate declarations and ballot production, and 14 days before that behind-the-scenes to program equipment to reflect the new maps.

Ohio law typically allots 90 days from the filing deadline to Election Day. However, state lawmakers passed a bill amid all the redistricting uncertainty that allowed LaRose to unilaterally override certain administrative deadlines for just this year. He is prohibited by law to reschedule the primary, though – a job left to lawmakers or, if they fail, the courts.

The GOP voter group has asked the federal court to order use of the third set of unconstitutional maps, on grounds that it is the only plan there is time to implement. For her part, Grandjean concurred – telling judges the third set of maps would be the “easiest” for boards to implement at this late date.

But Blanton then seemed to contradict Grandjean, asserting that LaRose would likely favor the fourth map. That’s because it’s the most recently approved by the commission, he said, and hasn’t yet been invalidated. Thapar reminded Blanton that he needed to envision a scenario where the fourth map has already been invalidated, since that is the only point at which the federal court will intervene.