The Ohio Supreme Court rejected GOP-drawn state House maps and Senate district maps as illegal gerrymandering. It ruled Wednesday that the maps were unconstitutional.
Advocates of redistricting reform hailed the decision as a resounding victory for Ohio voters who overwhelmingly approved changes to the state constitution to limit partisan line-drawing in 2015. This ruling sends a clear signal to Ohio lawmakers: they may not place politics over people,” stated Freda Levenson (legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio), who represented the opponents of the maps.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which is charged with drawing legislative maps but is dominated by Republicans, could not ignore portions of the Ohio Constitution that require them to try to match the voting preferences of Ohio voters, according the court’s majority opinion ,. Written by Justice Melody Stewart.
Those preferences, according to Stewart’s opinion, were 54% for Republican candidates and 46% for Democratic candidates over the past decade.
“The commission is required to attempt to draw a plan in which the statewide proportion of Republican-leaning districts to Democratic-leaning districts closely corresponds to those percentages,” Stewart wrote. Section 6 is not about desire, but direction. The commission will strive to meet the standards set forth in that section. “
Stewart rejected the argument from commission members Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Bob Cupp that the language was “aspirational” and required only if other, more technical, line-drawing requirements weren’t met.
“We reject the notion that Ohio voters rallied so strongly behind an anti-gerrymandering amendment to the Ohio Constitution yet believed at the time that the amendment was toothless,” Stewart wrote.
The commission must now get to work. The new plan must be adopted within 10 days, and the Ohio Supreme Court retains its authority to review any rewrites.
Feb. 2 are the current deadlines for filing paperwork to run in the Ohio Legislature. The filing deadline could be changed by state lawmakers without moving the May 3rd primary.
‘The plan’s result was by design’
On Sept. 16, Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission approved maps that would allow the GOP to retain its veto-proof majority in the state Legislature over the objections of the commission’s two Democrats.
According to Huffman, R-Lima, the maps could give Republicans a 62-37 advantage in the House and 23-10 advantage in the Senate.
Republicans justified their maps by saying voters preferred GOP candidates between 54% and 81% of the time. These figures represent the average percentage of votes GOP candidates got in recent statewide elections, and the percent of statewide races won or lost by Republicans over the last decade.
Stewart cited several reasons why the commission failed to match state voting preferences. The commission had no employees and initially allocated $150,000 to each chamber. The governor and other state officials were not given any money. Mike DeWine (Secretary of State Frank LaRose) and Keith Faber (Auditor) – were given money to assist with mapmaking.
And the fact that mapmakers, GOP staffers Ray DiRossi, Blake Springhetti, were reported to Huffman, Cupp and the entire commission, not the general public, is also noteworthy.
“The evidence here demonstrates that Senate President Huffman and House Speaker Cupp controlled the process of drawing the maps that the commission ultimately adopted,” Stewart wrote.
Three lawsuits were filed against the maps at the Ohio Supreme Court, claiming GOP mapmakers disregarded a section of voter-approved changes to the Ohio Constitution that required them to attempt to match voters’ political preferences. They claimed that the maps provided Republicans with an unfair advantage.
As part of those lawsuits, Dr. Kosuke Imai, a professor at Harvard University, created 5,000 possible district plans. None were as favorable as the Ohio Redistricting Commission’s.
“The fact that the adopted plan is an outlier among 5,000 simulated plans is strong evidence that the plan’s result was by design,” she wrote.
Stewart rejected the idea that voters dissatisfied by the maps had no other option than to vote out members the Ohio Redistricting Commission in the next election.
“The notion that the voters who overwhelmingly approved the amendment of Article XI meant to hinge the eradication of partisan gerrymandering on the election of various officeholders simply holds no water,” she wrote.
3 GOP justices dissent
Justice Sharon Kennedy, a Republican who is running for chief justice, wrote in a dissenting opinion that the court did not have the constitutional authority to send the maps back.
She dissents with Justice Pat DeWine. They argue that the section of Ohio’s constitution that states that no plan “shall not be drawn primarily in favor or disfavor of a political party” does not have the same enforcement mechanisms that other sections. Pat DeWine, the governor’s son.
” The majority of today’s voters finds the constitutionally-imposed limits unduly restrictive, so they choose to ignore them,” Kennedy wrote.
Justice Pat Fischer wrote, in a separate opinion: “The majority opinion is unreasonably, unabashedly, and unlawfully altering the Ohio Constitution. “
What comes next
The court ordered the Ohio Redistricting Commission to draw new maps.
Gov. Mike DeWine, in a statement, said he would work with fellow Ohio Redistricting Commission members on revised maps “that are consistent with the Court’s order.”
Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, called on commission members to “draw maps that keep communities together and represent the right of every Ohio voter to have fair districts.”
The Ohio Supreme Court is also reviewing the GOP-drawn congressional map, which was challenged by two lawsuits. The decision on this map is still in the making.
Earlier in the day, U.S. District Court Judge John Adams placed a federal case challenging state and congressional maps on hold for 60 days while the Ohio Supreme Court reviewed several pending lawsuits.
Read the decision here:
Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Akron Beacon Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.