Bypassing transparency, Ohio Redistricting Commission adopts slight revision of state district plan Ohio Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional
In a late-night vote held March 28 over the objections of the minority, the Ohio Redistricting Commission voted 4-3 to approve state legislative maps that had been provided to five of the seven members only a few minutes earlier. House Speaker Bob Cupp admitted under questioning that the new plan is only slightly different from the maps the Ohio Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in its March 16 ruling.
Every set of maps passed so far through the dominant role of the House Speaker and Senate President is predicted to preserve the veto-proof supermajority that has enabled the General Assembly to pass legislation such as ending the Governor’s public health orders during the pandemic, passing several gun rights expansion bills against the wishes of the majority of Ohioans, and refusing to end the coal plant subsidies imposed by HB 6 on all Ohio ratepayers. In addition, by springing this map on the other Commissioners at the last minute, House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman defied the Ohio Supreme Court’s order that the maps be drawn by the whole Commission in a process fully visible to the public.
Both process and outcome aroused anger and grief among hundreds of Fair Districts advocates who packed the hearing room and watched the process via a Zoom watch event. You can write to the Commissioners at this link.
Meanwhile, the fate of a second Congressional district plan remained undecided. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled March 18 that plaintiffs challenging the second map must start the process over because it had not retained jurisdiction over the case after its Jan. 14 ruling finding the first Congressional plan unconstitutional, also for disproportionally favoring the majority party.
The Ohio House and Senate District maps were adopted without any Democratic support, so, unless challenged for the fourth time in court, they go into effect for four years. The Ohio Supreme Court is allowing three days for objections to this fourth state district plan, and three days after that for responses to the objections.
The Ohio Supreme Court has found three sets of state district maps, as well as the first Congressional map, unconstitutional for disproportionately favoring the majority party in violation of specific representational fairness standards approved by over 70% of Ohio voters in the 2015 and 2018 referenda. The Ohio Constitution now specifies that the maps should reflect the statewide voting patterns over the preceding decade, which for 2011-21 was 54% Republican. The redistricting plans, the Court found, were likely to preserve the Republican supermajority in both the General Assembly and Congress.
The Ohio League of Women Voters has filed a new suit challenging the Commission’s second Congressional map, asking the Court to provide relief for the 2024 election. In doing so, the League hopes to overcome the partisan gerrymander through the state court while reducing the risk of the case shifting to federal courts. U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent years have combined to reduce the protections of the Voting Rights Act and, in some cases, to block state supreme court decisions.
Looming over all of this is the scheduled May 3 primary, with the Ohio Legislature refusing to vote to move the date. The primary date is being used as the justification for a malapportionment suit brought by Republicans in federal court. In this suit they ask that the third state district plan, which the Ohio Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional March 16, be used for this year’s election so that the primary can proceed. Alabama’s May 24 primary date was cited in February by the US Supreme Court in its decision to overrule a federal judge’s ruling that the state’s new Congressional map violates the Voting Rights Act.
In its March 16 ruling, the Court set a deadline of March 28 for the Commission to correct the partisan gerrymander of the third set of state district maps. The Court particularly cited “asymmetry:” that 19 of the nominally Democratic districts were in fact toss-ups, while none of the Republican districts were. “The result,” the justices wrote, “is that the 54 percent seat share for Republicans is a floor, while the 46 percent share for Democrats is a ceiling.”
Under stern questioning by Democratic Commissioner Rep. Allison Russo just before the vote, Speaker Cupp admitted that the new map was based on the one most recently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and it only reduced the number of toss-up “Democratic” districts from 19 to 17, while none of the Republican districts were toss-ups.
The Court also ordered the Commission to draft the map together, in public view, and recommended that the Commission hire independent consultants and a mediator. By pushing through their map, introduced just minutes before the late-night vote, Huffman and Cupp discarded several days of work by the two independent consultants hired by the Commission at $450/hr each expense to taxpayers. In an open process visible to citizens at the Statehouse and via the Ohio Channel, the consultants, one Republican and one Democrat, had produced a unified plan by the deadline day morning which Ohio League of Women Voters President Jen Miller cited as significantly more representative than the gerrymandered plans the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional. The mapmakers achieved this despite a number of roadblocks, particularly Republican insistence late in the process that the mapmakers document the impact of the plan on incumbents. This defied specific instructions in the Ohio Supreme Court March 16 ruling (p. 15) that protecting incumbents was not a justifiable criterion:
“Senate President Hoffman criticized the Sykes-Russo plan because, he said, it would have made it hard, if not impossible, for some Republican incumbents to retain their seats. Making that observation demonstrates, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Senate President Huffman misunderstands the requirements of Article XI [the constitutional redistricting rules passed by voter referendum] and the reasons for their adoption. Currently, the General Asseembly is marked by extreme disproportionality, with the Republican Party holding substantial majorities in both the Senate and the House. The district plan that facilitated that disproportionality was the basis for the adoption of Article XI. Senate President Huffman’s concern for protecting incumbents is not grounded in Article XI.”
Next week I’ll fill you in on the March 30 hearing before the Federal panel, and report concerns by the League of Women Voters and NAACP on how the maps the state adopted in January for School Board districts threatens the re-election of remaining board members who voted last fall against rescinding the Board’s 2020 anti-racism resolution.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org