As Ohio Goes, So Goes the Nation

A sign on a red background with "Warning Beware of Ohio GOP" written on it over an outline of the state of Ohio.

No state’s decennial redistricting process has been more fraught than Ohio’s. After multiple court rulings and rounds of redrawing maps, Ohio finally has maps in place — but only for this year’s election — and the process will continue into 2023 and likely beyond. In today’s piece, we’re recapping what went wrong in Ohio — and what it means for the country as a whole.

Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved constitutional amendments to ban partisan gerrymandering.

In response to brutal Republican gerrymanders enacted in 2011, Ohio voters approved two constitutional amendments to reform redistricting in the state. The first amendment, approved in 2015, tackled legislative (meaning state House and Senate) redistricting while the second, approved in 2018, targeted congressional redistricting. Both passed with large margins in support — Ohioans of all political persuasions emphatically expressed their disapproval of gerrymandering and desire for fair maps.

While the two amendments created somewhat different processes to enact new maps and assigned map drawing to two different bodies, they both required bipartisan approval to enact maps that last all 10 years.

  • Under the 2015 amendment, redrawing state House and Senate districts became the responsibility of the Ohio Redistricting Commission (ORC), made up of statewide elected officials and legislative leaders. This provision required that the proportion of legislative districts that favor each party must reflect the partisan breakdown of the state as measured by recent statewide election results.
  • Under the 2018 amendment, redrawing the congressional map remained the primary responsibility of the Ohio Legislature (with the ORC as a backup), but added that maps passed by the Legislature without bipartisan support cannot disfavor any political party.

Both amendments included provisions that allow any new maps to be challenged directly in the Ohio Supreme Court. Neither, however, expressly allow the Ohio Supreme Court to draw and adopt its own map that complies with the state constitution. Drawing any remedial maps was entrusted to the ORC and the Legislature — a choice that may prove to have been the reforms’ Achilles’ heel.

Ohio Republicans ignored these reforms — and got away with it.

Ohio Republicans — who make up a majority of the ORC and Legislature — proceeded to ignore both of these reforms to the maximum extent possible. In September 2021, the ORC approved new state House and Senate maps on a party line vote, with Republicans in the Legislature following suit and passing a congressional map with no Democratic support. All were found unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court for favoring Republicans over Democrats, a clear violation of the amendments and the express will of Ohioans.

But rather than accepting the court’s ruling, Ohio Republicans continued to gerrymander the state with abandon. For legislative redistricting, the ORC and the state Supreme Court became locked in a seemingly unending pattern — first the ORC passed gerrymandered state House and Senate maps, then the state Supreme Court struck those maps down and ordered the ORC to try again, then the ORC passed more gerrymandered maps. Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court couldn’t break this cycle in time since it was prohibited from passing its own legislative maps. Finally, in May, a federal court intervened following a Republican request and imposed a set of unconstitutional legislative maps for this year’s election — although the ORC is still supposed to draw yet another new set of maps for 2024 and beyond.

On the congressional side, after the state Supreme Court struck down the first congressional map, Ohio Republicans passed a second congressional map that was just as tilted to their party. That map was also challenged in court and, earlier this month, the same court ruled it unconstitutional, sending the state back to the drawing board once again. Since Ohio’s congressional primary has already happened, the unconstitutional map will be used this November. The end result is that all of Ohio’s members of Congress, state senators and state representatives will be elected under unconstitutional maps this year — including some of the very people who are supposed to redraw the overturned maps for the next election in 2024.

Ohio is a microcosm of the current state of American democracy.

Ohio’s redistricting saga underscores the flaws in the state’s reforms. While Ohio’s amendments were heralded as a model for other states when they were first approved by voters, how they operated in practice can only be described as a disaster. Using the benefit of hindsight, we can gather that leaving redistricting in the hands of politicians and preventing the court from enacting its own maps — unlike in Pennsylvania or North Carolina — were fatal flaws. In the future, when Ohioans (hopefully) update their redistricting processes, they should consider changing the makeup of their redistricting commission to limit the influence of politicians and giving the state Supreme Court more power to enact a map — as we previously wrote, states that included those reforms tended to be more successful at drawing fair maps.

But on a deeper level, the case of Ohio has more to say about the state of American democracy more broadly. In particular, when it comes to voting and elections, Republicans cannot be trusted to act in good faith when they stand to reap partisan gains. In a better world, Republicans would have worked with Democrats to pass bipartisan maps in the first place, or at least worked to remedy the maps after the first court decisions. Instead, they claimed all sorts of excuses to continue passing bad maps in order to delay until they got what they wanted. This sort of behavior isn’t just limited to Ohio — we also saw it in the breakdown of Virginia’s redistricting commission and the false excuses Republicans use to discredit the Jan. 6 committee. Any process that relies on Republicans enacting in good faith is unlikely to succeed.

Ohio also demonstrates Republicans’ increasing contempt for the rule of law. Normally after an adverse court ruling, Republicans in Ohio would be expected to comply with the decision of the court. That didn’t happen this year — Republicans ignored order after order, in what Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor (R) called “a stunning rebuke of the rule of law.” This also extends beyonds Ohio’s borders — we see it in the persistence of the “Big Lie” in multiple states, despite conclusive court rulings that there was no fraud in the 2020 presidential election. 

There’s an old adage that says “as Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” Ohio’s redistricting process this year is not an aberration. It’s an omen, a warning sign for the rest of the country and the perilous state of our fragile democracy.