The Ohio Redistricting Mess

A dark-blue map of Ohio counties with a Pac-Man game superimposed on top, with Pac-Man replaced by the Ohio flag and the ghosts replaced by donkeys.

Nowhere has had as much redistricting drama this year as Ohio. In the months since Ohio’s new state House, Senate and congressional maps were first overturned by the state Supreme Court, there have been multiple redraws, new lawsuits and even potential contempt of court proceedings. You could be forgiven for losing track of everything. Today, we’re recapping what went down in Ohio redistricting and where things currently stand as Election Day draws nearer and nearer. 

Ohio voters tried to curb partisan gerrymandering through reforms approved in 2015 and 2018.

As we outlined in our “Redistricting Rundown: Ohio,” voters overwhelmingly approved two amendments to the Ohio Constitution to curb partisan gerrymandering in response to the maps approved by Ohio Republicans after the 2010 census. The amendments created new rules and procedures for dividing up the state:

  • Redrawing state House and Senate districts became the responsibility of the Ohio Redistricting Commission (ORC), which can approve maps for 10 years through a bipartisan vote or for just four years through a partisan vote. The proportion of legislative districts that favor each party has to reflect the partisan breakdown of the state as measured by recent election results.
  • Redrawing the congressional map is still primarily the responsibility of the Ohio Legislature (with the ORC as a backup), but any map passed without bipartisan support is only in effect for four years. The map also can’t disfavor any political party.

Importantly, any new maps passed under the amendments can be challenged for violating the state constitution directly before the Ohio Supreme Court. The success of both amendments was heralded as a major voting rights victory for Ohio voters, especially in comparison to the scourge of partisan gerrymandering that plagues so many other states where politicians fully control the redistricting process.

Both the legislative and congressional plans were initially struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court for violating the reforms.

Unfortunately for Ohioans, Republican officials and legislators showed little interest in complying with either amendment. Following the release of 2020 census data, the ORC approved new state House and Senate maps on a party-line vote on Sept. 16, 2021, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed. In direct violation of the Ohio Constitution, the new maps gave Republicans control of districts far in excess of the state’s partisan breakdown. Unsurprisingly, the maps were soon challenged in three lawsuits in the state Supreme Court.

Likewise, Republicans in the Ohio Legislature didn’t even bother to try to reach a bipartisan agreement on a new congressional map. Ultimately, the Legislature approved a new map with only Republican votes. This map would give Republicans control of upwards of 80% of the state’s 15 congressional districts despite only winning 54% of the vote in recent statewide elections. Like the state legislative maps, the congressional map was also quickly challenged in both the state Supreme Court and federal court.

After holding oral arguments in December, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 12, 2022 that the new state House and Senate maps were partisan gerrymanders that violated the Ohio Constitution. The court ordered the ORC to reconvene and pass new maps that complied with the state constitution. Just a few days later, the court also struck down the congressional map for unduly favoring Republicans, noting that the kind of map passed by the Legislature “is not what Ohio voters wanted or expected” when they approved the amendments to “end partisan gerrymandering in Ohio for good.” The state’s highest court ordered the Legislature to draw a new map within 30 days. In an ideal world, both of these court rulings would have led Ohio Republicans to cooperate with Ohio Democrats to pass fair maps. But that’s not the world we live in.

Instead of complying with the court rulings, Republicans tried to pass gerrymandered maps anyway — and they largely succeeded.

The ORC, when it reconvened to redraw the state House and Senate maps, once again passed new maps with only Republican support. Those plans, like the first ones, were also challenged and found unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court, which ordered the ORC to try again. And once again, the ORC passed new maps with only Republican support — maps that the state Supreme Court then found unconstitutional for a third time for being partisan gerrymanders.

This dynamic around legislative redrawing continued to repeat throughout the first half of this year, with the ORC passing partisan Republican gerrymanders and the state Supreme Court finding them unconstitutional. Most recently, the court tossed out the fifth set of maps the ORC submitted (which were really just the third set that were already found unconstitutional) and ordered it to try again. 

State Republicans clearly wanted to run out the clock until there was no time left to enact new legislative maps before this year’s elections. This gambit succeeded when a federal court stepped in on May 27 and imposed the third set of maps (previously found to be unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court) for this year’s elections only, reasoning that no other plan could be implemented in time. While the ORC will presumably have to reconvene at some point and adopt new plans for 2024, it has so far refused.

A similar process unfolded when it came to redrawing the congressional map. The Ohio Legislature didn’t even bother trying to pass a new map by the 30-day deadline in the court’s ruling, causing mapdrawing to fall to the ORC — which passed a map that was barely changed from the first, with Republicans arguing that upcoming elections allowed them to ignore the court’s ruling. This second congressional map is being challenged in ongoing litigation before the Ohio Supreme Court, but will be used for at least the 2022 elections.

Ohio voters will have to vote under unconstitutional maps.

The end result of Republicans’ “stunning rebuke of the rule of law” and their contempt for the reforms enacted by voters is that Ohio state House and Senate elections will take place this year under maps explicitly found to be unconstitutional. The congressional elections will be held under a map that is actively being challenged in court and may very well also be unconstitutional. The harm inflicted on Ohio voters by this situation is incalculable and it would seem the much-hailed reforms to curb partisan gerrymandering failed completely. Clearly, any reform that requires Republicans to act in good faith is likely doomed to failure. The inability of the Ohio Supreme Court to impose its own maps — unlike its counterparts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania — is also a flaw of Ohio’s process.

With the state House and Senate maps (supposedly) only in place for 2022 and litigation against the congressional map ongoing, it’s still unclear how Ohio redistricting will ultimately end. Unfortunately, the trainwreck could continue. If the past is prologue, then it is reasonable to assume Republicans in the Buckeye State will stop at nothing to draw maps for partisan gain. And, with one of the anti-gerrymandering justices on the ballot this fall, a future state Supreme Court may not stand in their way.