Advocacy update for January 18, 2022

Advocacy update for January 18, 2022

Advocacy update for January 18, 2022 150 150 Episcopalians in Connection

State Supreme Court stands up for Ohio voters

How to send your input in fast timeline for new district maps

In twin decisions making national headlines, Ohio’s Supreme Court ruled that the new state and Congressional district maps adopted this fall by the General Assembly are unconstitutional, and ordered them to be redrawn to comply with specific standards based in the constitutional amendments overwhelmingly approved by Ohio voters to prevent partisan gerrymandering. The rulings come in the thick of the national battle over protecting the principles that all votes should count equally and all eligible voters should have equal access to the vote. This week – starting with the national holiday honoring voting rights leader Martin Luther King – brings a climactic debate on both issues in the U.S. Senate.

By a tiny thread – 4-3 bipartisan decisions by our state Supreme Court – the voter-approved redistricting process keeps alive the hope of fair maps. Meanwhile, by making an icon of the filibuster (long used by segregationists to block voting rights), two Democratic Senators are stopping the U.S. Senate from passing uniform national standards to prevent gerrymandering and replace state laws that disproportionately hamper the ability of poor and minority voters (including Native Americans) to cast their votes.

The Ohio Supreme Court retains jurisdiction to review the constitutionality of the revised maps

Public input is vital to keep a bright light on this process. As of Jan. 17, the email address to the Ohio Redistricting Commission was not functioning, so the best option is to write to your Senator and Representative (see “Who Represents Me?”) and two Redistricting Commission members who are also members of the General Assembly: House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senator Vernon Sykes. In a short letter, cite your values, tell why changing the map matters to you, and how gerrymandering affects your community and its needs.

On January 12, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the state legislative district maps adopted by the General Assembly in September are unconstitutional because they fail to comply with the proportionality standard spelled out in Article XI, Section 6 of the Ohio Constitution. They ordered the Ohio Redistricting Commission to reconvene and draw a new map by January 24, giving petitioners three days thereafter to submit testimony on it.

Citing specific constitutional guidelines, the ruling noted that all parties agreed that in the preceding 10 years of statewide election vote counts, 54% of votes went to Republicans and 46% to Democrats. The justices ruled that this is the standard that the state legislative map must comply with, and that myriad maps compliant with that standard and all the other rules have been generated, among them maps submitted to the Redistricting Commission and General Assembly during the redistricting process. They noted that the map-drawing process was monopolized by the Senate President and Speaker of the House, both members of the Commission, who predicted that the state legislative districts in the adopted map would generate a Republican supermajority of over 60% in both houses. The majority ruling rejected the two legislative leaders’ assertion this supermajority would be constitutional.

On Jan. 15, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled again 4-3 that the Congressional map adopted in November is unconstitutional because it fails the standards adopted by voters in Article XIX that no plan may ‘unduly favor or disfavor a political party” and that it unduly splits four counties, including those containing Columbus and Cincinnati. The Court gave the General Assembly 30 days to draw a new, constitutionally compliant map, and if that fails, sends the task to the Redistricting Commission. Read pp. 20-37 for detailed evidence on the packing and cracking of Hamilton and Franklin County, which wastes and dilutes the votes of residents of the two biggest cities of our diocese.

The majority opinions in both cases cite extensive expert testimony showing that thousands of maps can be drawn that comply with all the rules in the Constitution. The decisions cite scholarly findings that the maps approved by the General Assembly are extreme statistical outliers in conferring disproportionate power to the majority party. The rulings cite the steps of a map-drawing process which shut out five of the seven Commissioners, and quote comments by Commissioners Gov. DeWine and Secretary of State LaRose – both Republicans – citing frustration with the process and concern over the constitutionality of the results.  The map drawers – both legislative staffers for the majority party – testified they were not instructed to consider the partisan leaning of Congressional districts even though the software they used showed that on the screen as they moved district boundaries.

I recommend that you watch Ava Duvernay’s film Selma, which was made in 2014 after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutting key federal protections for voter access in the 1965 Voting Rights Act,  which was the fruit of the nonviolent protest and horrendous ordeals of civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King and John Lewis recounted in the film. As soon as Shelby County v. Holder ended federal preclearance of changes in state election law, states began to pass laws making registration and voting more onerous, particularly for poor people and people of color. The number and array of these bills has picked up nationwide since the 2020 election, with its unprecedented voter turnout and efforts to provide more means of voting safely because of the pandemic.

Justice Donnelly opened the majority opinion on Ohio’s Congressional map with this powerful statement of the stakes: “In our representative democracy, the power rests at all times with the people. Their power is never more profound than when it is expressed through their vote at the ballot box. Those whom the people elect to represent them are given transitory authority to discharge their responsibilities under the Constitutions and laws of the United States and the state of Ohio, but the true power is expressed by the people when they exercise their right to vote on what Walt Whitman celebrated as “America’s choosing day,” when the heart of it is not in the chosen but in the act of choosing.

“Gerrymandering is the antithetical perversion of representative democracy. It is an abuse of power—by whichever political party has control to draw geographic boundaries for elected state and congressional offices and engages in that practice—that strategically exaggerates the power of voters who tend to support the favored party while diminishing the power of voters who tend to support the disfavored party. Its singular allure is that it locks in the controlling party’s political power while locking out any other party or executive office from serving as a check and balance to power. One avaricious proponent of congressional redistricting and gerrymandering declared redistricting “a great event,” proclaiming gleefully: “Redistricting is like an election in reverse! Usually the voters get to pick the politicians. In redistricting, the politicians get to pick the voters!” (Miles Parks, Redistricting Guru’s Hard Drives Could Mean Legal, Political Woes for GOP (June 7, 2019).  The evidence in these cases makes clear beyond all doubt that the General Assembly did not heed the clarion call sent by Ohio voters to stop political gerrymandering… [resulting] in districts in which undue political bias is—whether viewed through the lens of expert statistical analysis or by application of simple common sense—at least as if not more likely to favor Republican candidates than the 2011 reapportionment that impelled Ohio’s constitutional reforms.

“When the dealer stacks the deck in advance, the house usually wins,” Justice Donnelly concluded (p. 41). “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 incontrovertible evidence in these cases establishes that the plan passed by the General Assembly fails to honor the constitutional process set out in Article XIX to reapportion Ohio’s congressional districts. The General Assembly produced a plan that is infused with undue partisan bias and that is incomprehensibly more extremely biased than the 2011 plan that it replaced. This is not what Ohio voters wanted or expected when they approved Article XIX as a means to end partisan gerrymandering in Ohio for good. The time has now come for the General Assembly to faithfully discharge the constitutional responsibilities imposed by Article XIX and by oath of office.”

Advocacy briefings are compiled by Ariel Miller, a member of Ascension & Holy Trinity, Wyoming, and a member of the diocesan Becoming Beloved Community Leadership Team. Connect with her at arielmillerwriter@gmail.com