A three-judge federal panel unanimously ruled Friday that Ohio’s gerrymandered congressional district map is unconstitutional, and ordered the creation of a new map in time for the 2020 election.
This is the latest in a series of decisions across the country striking down partisan maps, including in neighboring Michigan and Pennsylvania. Plus, U.S. Supreme Court rulings are pending for cases out of North Carolina and Maryland.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, on behalf of the League of Women voters and others, filed the suit a year ago in an attempt to move up the timetable for congressional redistricting reform in the state.
“This ruling is a victory for every Ohio voter, because a fair congressional map before 2020 means a stronger democracy for the Buckeye State,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
The court ordered the state to create a new map by June 14. But if the state fails to adopt a constitutional version of the map for Ohio’s 16 congressional districts, the court may then do so itself.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said the state would both seek to put the ruling on hold and file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The judges in their ruling said: “We are convinced by the evidence that this partisan gerrymander was intentional and effective and that no legitimate justification accounts for its extremity. …
“The 2012 map dilutes the votes of Democratic voters by packing and cracking them into districts that are so skewed toward one party that the electoral outcome is predetermined. We conclude that the map unconstitutionally burdens associational rights by making it more difficult for voters and certain organizations to advance their aims, be they pro-Democratic or pro- democracy.”
Two of the three judges were appointees of Democratic presidents – Timothy S. Black by Barack Obama and Karen Nelson Moore by Bill Clinton. The third judge on the panel, Michael H. Watson, was appointed by Republican George W. Bush. The case was heard in Cincinnati.
Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and his Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, the former secretary of state named as a defendant in the case, both declined comment.
Yost, in a prepared statement, described the decision as a “fundamentally political act that has no basis whatsoever in the constitution.”
Timeline for a new map
In court filings leading up the the ruling, the state said it must have a map by September of this year, in order to prepare for the 2020 election.
The judges laid out an aggressive timetable to create a new map, ordering the state to “enact a remedial plan consistent” with the court’s opinion by June 14. That plan and details of how the new map was determined must be submitted by June 21.
The advocates who brought the suit will then have a week to object to the new map.
Friday’s ruling said that if necessary, the court could create its own map with the help of a special master.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose did not directly address the ruling, but said in a prepared statement: “Make no mistake, our office will work with county boards of elections to administer fair, accurate and secure elections in 2020, pending the conclusion of the judicial process.”
Reaction was divided in the legislature, which will be asked to deal with the decision:
Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof of Medina, complained that the case was even taken to trial: “Make no mistake, this politically motivated lawsuit was brought for the sole purpose of helping Democrat candidates win more seats. It does so at the expense of Ohio’s voters, who would be forced to vote under three different congressional maps in four calendar years.”
Ohio House Democratic leader Emilia Sykes of Akron reacted: “After decades of mistrust, predetermined outcomes and representation rigged against the voter, our state will have a real opportunity to give taxpayers an honest choice.”
Reform approved by voters in 2018
Ohio voters last year overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to limit how much the majority party could control the process of drawing congressional lines, beginning in 2022 after results of the next census are available. The lawsuit’s aim was to force change beginning with the 2020 election.
The current Ohio congressional map, created under secrecy and full Republican control in 2011, has resulted in districts making little geographic sense, stretching more than 100 miles, and predictable results with 12 reliably Republican districts created by packing Democrats into four solidly blue districts.
The map had come under intense criticism from critics who claimed it created insurance against swings in voter sentiment – for both Republican and Democratic districts. The map, at least indirectly, led to statewide petitions for change.
In each of the four congressional elections with this map, Republicans have won the same 12 seats and Democrats the same four – just as designed. And the GOP has won those 75 percent of elections with just over 50 percent of the vote.
The ill effects of gerrymandering, and the need for change, was the focus of a months-long cleveland.com series – Out of Line: Impact 2017 and Beyond. Reform had support from both Republicans and Democrats.
Gerrymandering cases across the U.S.
Ohio followed a long list of states where the legality of the gerrymandering has been questioned.
- Pennsylvania held elections last year with a new congressional map after the old map was tossed out by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
- A federal judge panel in Michigan this spring ordered changes to congressional and Statehouse district maps there.
- The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June on pending gerrymandering cases out of Maryland and North Carolina, one brought Republicans and one brought by Democrats.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 ruled that partisan gerrymandering violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, but left ambiguous the standard by which courts might rule on such claims.
A clearer answer on the limits of partisan gerrymandering could come from the pending cases.
In Ohio, the congressional map violated the constitutional rights of Ohioans, the suit claimed, by:
- “Entrenching partisan advantage against likely changes in voter preference.”
- Disfavoring “Democratic voters on the basis of their political affiliation.”
- Placing “plaintiffs and their political class into districts so as to dilute the power of their votes.”
The state said in court filings that any new map needs to be in place by Sept. 20, 2019, so there is enough time to prepare for the 2020 election.
Rich Exner, data analysis editor for cleveland.com, writes about numbers on a variety of topics, including gerrymandering. Follow on Twitter @RichExner. Find data-related stories at cleveland.com/datacentral.