Ohio’s Congressional Map Was Ruled Unconstitutional. How Will a New Map Affect Future Elections?
Ohio could once again become a battleground state. Ruled “an unconstitutional gerrymander,” the state’s congressional map has been tossed out by a federal court, and lawmakers have until June to draw a new one.
The ruling came on Friday, May 3 from a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. Created by state Republican lawmakers in a Columbus hotel room, and with the help of national Republican operatives in Washington, D.C., the 2012 map had the singular goal — and effect — of maintaining a 12 to four Republican advantage in the congressional delegation, according to the court’s opinion.
“These national Republicans generated some of the key strategic ideas for the map, maximizing its likely pro-Republican performance, and had the authority to approve changes to the map before their Ohio counterparts implemented them,” the opinion states. “Throughout the process, the Ohio national map drawers made decisions based on their likely partisan effects.”
The map lays out Democratic districts split into “strange, squiggly, curving” shapes with the intent to divide voters and prevent them from forming a coherent voting bloc. It has odd districts, like the District 3 “Franklin County Sinkhole,” where Democratic voters are concentrated in order to create Republican majorities in neighboring Districts 12 and 15; as well as the the “Snake on the Lake,” a long sliver of a district that cuts through numerous counties in northern Ohio; and District 11, which absorbed African-American voters in Summit County and allowed for the creation of Republican-majority District 16.
Since the map was drawn in 2011, Ohio has had four congressional election cycles and, regardless of voter turnout, Republicans have maintained their 12 to four advantage.
“Even in the 2018 midterms. People were calling it a blue wave,” says Elizabeth Bonham, Staff Attorney for ACLU of Ohio, one of the plaintiffs of the lawsuit. “But the Ohio map was so gerrymandered that, even when you had all this voter turnout, candidates still couldn’t beat the map.”
While the congressional delegation doesn’t currently reflect this, Ohio’s electorate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Bonham says that, along with creating more reliably Democratic districts, a new map would also establish more competitive districts that can go either way, and where votes could actually make a difference.
The court decision does not affect Issue 1, the ballot issue that voters approved last May which changed the procedural set of rules Ohio lawmakers will use to draw a new map after the 2020 census. The decision simply requires that lawmakers draw a new map before the 2020 election.
Lawmakers have a tight window to get it done, too. In order to get the map approved by early June, it not only needs to be drawn, but also quickly passed through the legislature in time for Governor Mike DeWine to sign it. Then they’ll need to file it in court, and the court will determine if the map satisfies constitutional standards. If it doesn’t meet those standards, or if it doesn’t meet the deadline, the court will take stronger oversight of the map drawing process, employing an expert to direct and oversee it.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is seeking a stay and will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Bonham has confidence that voting rights groups will see a victory.
“There are parameters that say political interests locked up in a hotel room outside the public eye shouldn’t be deciding our electoral process,” Bonham says. “And I think this is part of a national trend. We’ve seen multiple courts hold that partisan gerrymandering if unconstitutional — whichever party does it. We’re seeing public outcry about this, and rightly so. Partisan gerrymandering needs to stop, and we need to put the votes back in the hands of the people, where they belong.”
Read the full court decision here.