Ineptitude of Board of Elections keeps ward redistricting on hold

There’s a cautionary tale in the Mahoning County Board of Elections’ inept handling of the redistricting of council wards in the city of Youngstown: Don’t assume that what government has done in the past is legal or sensible. This is especially true when elected officials are involved, and their goal is to protect their turf.

In developing a plan to divide Youngstown’s population as evenly as possible among the seven wards, board of elections officials used the number of registered voters in the city, as opposed to the number of residents. Why? Because that’s how the ward redistricting was done 30 years ago.

Did no one at the elections board stop to ask why the Ohio General Assembly and the state apportionment board use the population number established by the 2010 national census to draw the congressional and state Senate and House district boundaries? Did no one consult with a lawyer at the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office to find out what the Ohio and U.S. constitutions require?

And, did no one wonder why Youngstown State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies used the city’s head count and not the number of registered voters to develop the many maps it presented to city council? The maps all adhere to the constitutional requirement of population balance. But lawmakers have rejected them.

Why? Because Councilwoman Annie Gillam, D-1st, refuses to accept the fact that the 1st Ward and much of the East Side, which suffered the greatest population loss, according to the 2010 national census, will be affected the most in any redistricting. But more significantly, Gillam’s house and much of the East Side cannot be in the new 1st Ward — if the constitutional test for redrawing ward boundaries is to be met.

As a result, most members of council have locked horns with Mayor John A. McNally, who is of the opinion that politics should not come into play and that the city’s 65,000 residents should be divided as equally as possible among the seven wards.

But late last month, council voted to hire Triad Research Group of Westlake to draw new boundaries. Triad would be paid between $7,500 and $10,000 if the board of control, made up of the mayor and finance and law directors, enters into an agreement with the company.

McNally made it clear that council’s plan is dead on arrival.

Given this impasse, we were encouraged when the board of elections offered to develop a map — at no cost to the city.

We believed that elections officials would follow the constitutional mandates of redistricting and come to the same conclusion as YSU’s urban studies center. We were wrong.

Status quo

What’s troubling about the board of elections’ map is that by using registered voters instead of the city’s population, all seven members of council remain in their current wards.

“I think it should make everyone happy,” said elections Director Joyce Kale-Pesta. Making everyone happy is not what’s important; constitutionality is.

Mayor McNally, a lawyer, isn’t buying the registered-voters count and has asked the law department to look into the constitutional requirement.

To her credit, Gillam also is not convinced that the elections officials have used the right number to develop its redistricting map.

So, it’s back to square one.

Thomas Finnerty, associate director of YSU’s urban center, who has steadfastly defended the maps he developed, criticized the plan submitted by elections officials, saying it would be summarily tossed out if it were challenged in court.

“You don’t do it to keep Annie happy,” Finnerty said. “There’s no way she should be in the 1st Ward. I can’t believe the board of elections would think this is legal.”

Neither can we.

It’s time to stop the nonsense and do what the state and U.S. constitutions require.

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