By Bill Woods
Reformers in Ohio just won a needed victory. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected the new district maps for state representatives drafted and approved by the Republican members of the Redistricting Commission. In a four to three decision delivered on January 12th, the Court found that the maps failed to follow the redistricting procedures spelled out in the Ohio Constitutional Amendment passed by the voters in 2015. It further ruled that the Commission must draw new maps that comply with this Constitutional Amendment.
The Court ruling brought at least temporary relief to reformers who were stunned last fall when Republicans completely ignored the 2015 Amendment. The GOP members of the Redistricting Commission approved state district maps that were every bit as gerrymandered as the ones drawn in 2011. In fact, this earlier case of extreme political gerrymandering inspired reform groups and citizen activists to get behind initiatives to reform the redistricting process such as the 2015 Amendment. "This ruling," declared Freda Levenson, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio, "sends a clear message to lawmakers in Ohio: They may not put politics over people."
The majority opinion of the Court written by Justice Melody Stewart argued that the new maps for electing State Representatives and Senators failed to follow the wording of the 2015 Amendment that district drafters attempt to match the statewide voting preferences of Ohio voters. Numerically calculating these preferences over the last decade show a fifty-four percent preference for Republican candidates to a forty-six percent preference for Democrats. Responding to arguments by Republican defenders of the new maps that the voter preference language in the Amendment was "aspirational," Stewart wrote: "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."
What happens next? The Court ruled that the Ohio Redistricting Commission must create new maps in the next ten days. What can average citizens do in this short time frame? The organizations that both support redistricting reform and challenged the new maps before the Ohio Supreme Court are already preparing for action.
Fair Vote, the coalition that includes Common Cause Ohio, the League of Women Voters of Ohio, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, just issued an action alert to their members and supporters about how to get involved. In a telephone conversation with Catherine Turcer, Executive Director of Common Cause Ohio, she outlined these points. Turcer emphasized that the most important steps for citizens to take are calling, emailing, or writing letters to members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission.
As they begin their task of creating new state district maps, it is critical that they know that their actions are being watched by thousands of concerned Ohio voters.
First of all, said, Turcer, tell them to create fair districts that follow the procedures called for in the 2015 Constitutional Amendment!
"The Fair Vote" coalition recommends these specific requests that should be included in communications to members of the Commission. Ask them to immediately hold public hearings that include expert witnesses as well as concerned citizens. Demand that a non-partisan and transparent process be used in creating the new maps. That process should also strive to keep communities together as much as possible. Finally, the Commission must adhere to the mandate of the 2015 Amendment that the new districts reflect the vote percentages that the two major parties received from Ohio voters over the last decade.
These are the Commission members who need to hear from you. Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman (huffman@Ohiosenate.gov). Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp (email@example.com). Senator Vernon Sykes (firstname.lastname@example.org). House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (email@example.com). Governor Mike DeWine.
A footnote to this article concerns the separate legal challenges to the new Congressional Districts that were approved by the Republican members of the Ohio General Assembly in the fall. These highly gerrymandered districts reveal that Republican legislators completely ignored the 2018 Ohio Constitutional Amendment mandating that new
Congressional Districts should not be drawn to favor one political party. The Ohio Supreme Court has also heard cases challenging these maps, but it has not yet issued its opinion. Stay tuned, as the Court may very well rule that these districts must be redrawn.