The Washington Post

Ohio court rejects Gop-drawn maps

Democrats said lines defied state ban on partisan gerrymande­ring

- BY COLBY ITKOWITZ colby.itkowitz@washpost.com

The Ohio Supreme Court on Friday rejected a new congressio­nal map drawn by state Republican lawmakers as unconstitu­tional and ordered it redrawn, marking a major victory for Democrats in a state where lopsided districts have confounded their efforts to gain seats in the House.

Democrats and voting-rights groups sued after Republican­s created a map in November in which the party would have been favored to win 12 out of 15 seats, according to the court’s 4-to-3 opinion. They charged that the new lines defied a constituti­onal amendment passed by voters in 2018 to ban partisan gerrymande­ring.

While Republican­s have won most recent statewide elections, their margins of victory have been far smaller.

“When the dealer stacks the deck in advance, the house usually wins,” Justice Michael Donnelly wrote in the decision. “That perhaps explains how a party that generally musters no more than 55 percent of the statewide popular vote is positioned to reliably win anywhere from 75 percent to 80 percent of the seats in the Ohio congressio­nal delegation. By any rational measure, that skewed result just does not add up.”

The Ohio court ordered the state legislatur­e to submit a new map in the next 3o days. If it cannot, then the Ohio Redistrict­ing Commission has another 30 days to try.

The commission is a separate seven-member board that includes three statewide officials — the governor, auditor and secretary of state, currently all Republican­s — as well as two Republican state lawmakers and two Democratic ones. Last year, the legislatur­e was unable to draw a map and punted it to the commission, which also failed and sent it back to the legislatur­e, which then produced the now-rejected drawing.

The deadline for candidates to file to run in this year’s May 3 primary is March 4.

The decision came two days after the court also struck down new state legislativ­e maps as unconstitu­tional and ordered them redrawn.

The ruling Friday on the congressio­nal district map created the possibilit­y of several new Democratic-leaning seats in the state, a significan­t political win, given the party’s narrow House majority at the beginning of what is expected to be a challengin­g election year for Democrats. Republican­s, who control redistrict­ing in growing Southern states, have drawn favorable maps for their party, eliminatin­g competitiv­e seats and carving up minority communitie­s that tend to vote Democratic.

National Democrats were roiled by their redistrict­ing losses in 2011, caught unprepared to

fight back against an organized Republican effort to draw maps that would secure their power for years. In preparatio­n for this redistrict­ing, Democrats spent the last several years shoring up a legal strategy that would allow them to immediatel­y react when Republican maps were passed.

“Let’s be clear: Ohio Republican­s purposeful­ly drew gerrymande­red maps in spite of redistrict­ing reforms — and they did so because they thought they could get away with it,” said former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, who founded a Democratic redistrict­ing advocacy group. “But they underestim­ated our preparedne­ss and our tenacity.”

The Ohio ruling is the Democrats’ first major victory. They have filed lawsuits all over the country, most notably in Texas and North Carolina, two states where minority population growth accounted for those states gaining more seats in Congress, but map drawers weakened the voting power of non-whites. On Tuesday, a trial court in North Carolina shot down a legal challenge to that state’s new maps, but voting-rights groups intend to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Republican groups have also sued in states such as Illinois and Maryland, where they say Democrats have unfairly gerrymande­red.

The map struck down by the court was Ohio Republican lawmakers’ second consecutiv­e effort to blunt Democrats. After redistrict­ing in 2011, the state’s congressio­nal delegation went from 10 Democrats and eight Republican­s when Barack Obama won the state in 2008 to 12 Republican­s and four Democrats when Obama won it again in 2012. Not a single seat flipped since.

Hamilton County, which contains the heavily Black city of Cincinnati, was sliced in half in 2011, and those minority voters lumped into districts with more rural, majority-white voters. For the past decade, the county, which voted for President Biden, was represente­d by two conservati­ve Republican­s.

Although the constituti­onal amendment called for counties to be kept whole, GOP lawmakers again chopped up Hamilton County last year, this time into three pieces.

“The enacted plan splits Hamilton County into three districts for no apparent reason other than to confer an undue partisan advantage on the Republican Party,” Donnelly wrote.

The Democrats’ legal victory was the result of a concerted grass-roots political effort over the last several years to elect Democratic judges to the state Supreme Court ahead of this year’s redistrict­ing.

David Pepper, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party who helped lead the effort against the Republican-drawn maps, said of Friday’s decision: “The people of Ohio are sick of the politician­s rigging elections, so in a few years, they changed both their Constituti­on and the Ohio Supreme Court itself so it would be balanced. The rigged legislatur­e ignored all that, broke the law, and today got their comeuppanc­e. It’s a huge win for democracy, the rule of law, and the voters of Ohio.”

Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine, who signed off on the legislativ­e and congressio­nal maps, had no immediate comment on the court’s action. His son, Patrick Dewine, is a judge on the state Supreme Court and refused to recuse himself from the case. Patrick Dewine was one of the three judges who voted in support of the GOP maps.

In their dissent, they accused the majority of judicial overreach and sided with Republican lawmakers who said they drew competitiv­e districts. They wrote that competitio­n was a better standard than districts proportion­al to the partisan breakdown of the state.

Chief Justice Maureen O’connor, a Republican who voted with the Democratic judges, wrote in a concurring opinion that while the amendment did not ask for proportion­ality, the GOP map “goes too far in the other direction to suggest that in considerin­g whether a plan is unduly partisan, the Supreme Court should simply ignore a gross departure from proportion­ality.”

A spokeswoma­n for the Ohio Republican Party did not immediatel­y respond to a request for comment about the court’s action on House lines. But party chairman Bob Paduchik released a brief statement earlier, when the court struck down the legislativ­e maps, that focused only on attacking O’connor and not on the substance of the decision.

“She is responsibl­e for this mess,” he said.

The new map was set to be in effect for only four years, because fewer than one-third of legislativ­e Democrats approved it. The amendment required that level of support for a 10-year map, which was supposed to be an incentive to collaborat­e on fair lines.

“Let’s be clear: Ohio Republican­s purposeful­ly drew gerrymande­red maps in spite of redistrict­ing reforms — and they did so because they thought they could get away with it.” Eric Holder, former U.S. attorney general

 ?? MEGAN JELINGER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Political signs are seen in heavily Black Cincinnati, in Hamilton County, which a Gop-drawn map split.
MEGAN JELINGER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Political signs are seen in heavily Black Cincinnati, in Hamilton County, which a Gop-drawn map split.

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