Ohio’s Wobbly and Ongoing Path to Fair Maps

Blue background with dark blue toned images of the Ohio Redistricting Commission and members of the Ohio Legislature and also images of voters holding signs that read "OHIO IS ALL IN FOR FAIR MAPS." There are also red-toned images of different versions of Ohio's congressional map.

In 2022, Republicans forced Ohioans to vote under maps more rigged than the ones we had 10 years and two anti-gerrymandering reforms ago. And if that weren’t bad enough, there’s almost nothing we can do to keep them from doing it again.

If you’re new to the tale of Ohio’s redistricting process, welcome. It has truly been a wild ride, and we’re not even done with it quite yet. But before we get into where we are now and what could be next, here’s a look at where we’ve been. 

There’s no way I could do the full rundown of our most recent mapping cycle justice in this one article, so I’d encourage you to listen to the “Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map” episode of This American Life where Ira Glass masterfully packages up the multi-year saga.

For now, though, here’s the gist: Ahead of redistricting, Ohioans passed two constitutional reforms to make mapping more fair, transparent and people-powered, but Republicans — who helped write those reforms by the way — decided to ignore them entirely. Instead, Ohio Republicans opted to gerrymander the maps in their favor, ignore the will of the people and, despite multiple strike downs from the Ohio Supreme Court, we voted under them anyway. 

Our latest redistricting cycle went worse than it did in 2011 in nearly every way possible.

First, Republicans successfully ran out the clock with five rounds of map redraws. Then, they forum shopped their legal defense into federal court where Trump-appointed judges remarkably disregarded federalism to force Ohioans to vote under maps that our state Supreme Court rightfully deemed illegal. And now we have a new ideologically Republican majority on the state Supreme Court that will likely just rubber stamp the Legislature’s gerrymanders for (at least) the next election. This means that we’re likely stuck with these unconstitutional maps for now.

All in all, by violating the reform language they wrote and undermining the rule of law, Ohio Republicans expanded their political power in our latest redistricting process by simply ignoring the will of the people, our state constitution, and the Ohio Supreme Court. Here are some highlights.

In 2011, our maps were drawn behind closed doors in a hotel room that Republicans nicknamed “The Bunker.” Maps were finally revealed to the public just days before final votes took place and no public comment was accepted on them. The only opportunity for public comment came at hearings held around the state a month before a single map was proposed. 

In response, voters went to the ballot to demand more transparency and public participation in mapping under both of the reforms. Our state constitution now requires public hearings to be held after maps have been publicly proposed, but before they are voted on. The idea here is that the people’s voice ought to be heard in a process that’s ultimately about our ability to elect representatives. 

Not one, not two, but five rounds of map-drawing have taken place in the Buckeye State.

But in 2021, the maps were again drawn behind closed doors and only unveiled days (if not mere hours) before final votes on them were held. To add insult to injury, Republicans only ever released maps in PDF format, meaning any real-time analysis of how the maps impacted voters at a community level was impossible. And the bulk of the public testimony hearings that were hosted again came before a single map was ever proposed. 

A few hearings were held after maps had been made public, but the Legislature and Ohio Redistricting Commission made them largely inaccessible to most Ohioans. Those hearings were all held during daytime work hours at the state capitol without virtual testimony options, sometimes overlapping in timing with hearings in different chambers and often requiring members of the public to submit their testimony about the maps before they were even publicly released.

Our maps were so bad they were struck down seven separate times in a months-long Groundhog’s Day nightmare of redraws.

To combat maps passed — as they were in 2011 — with only one-party support (a pretty strong indication that they’re gerrymandered to favor that party), voters went to the ballot with the hopes of forcing more bipartisanship in mapping. The state constitution now incentivizes bipartisanship by requiring it for any ten-year maps; any maps passed with merely one-party support are only effective for four years and one mid-decade redraw is then offered as a second opportunity for bipartisan support of a map that would last the remaining six years. 

Despite their feigned support for bipartisanship during the negotiation process and reform campaigns, Republicans drew their own maps, which were nearly all adopted along party lines. Out of the six final map votes that took place, the two exceptions to the party-line votes were the times Republican State Auditor Keith Faber voted against maps because he thought they were too gerrymandered for Democrats. It’s perhaps worth quickly noting here that the Ohio Supreme Court struck down every single map adopted by the Ohio Redistricting Commission (on which Faber serves) for being unconstitutionally gerrymandered in favor of Republicans.

Voter-approved anti-gerrymandering reforms proved to be no match for Ohio Republicans.

While on the topic of gerrymandering, as a direct response to Republicans drawing some of the most rigged maps in the country in 2011 (including the ones with the infamous “Snake on the Lake” and “duck” districts), Ohio voters went to the ballot to demand fair maps. Our constitution now explicitly prohibits partisan gerrymandering and requires maps that reflect how Ohioans vote — a novel concept.

But, in a move just as impressive as it is outrageous, Republicans adopted district maps last year that are actually more rigged in their favor than the ones they adopted a decade ago. Under our new maps — where Republicans are drawn into entirely safe seats but where about half of the seats they label as Democratic are actually toss ups — Republicans could win up to 74% of our state legislative seats and 80% of our congressional seats despite having earned just 54% of our vote in the last decade. Ohio Democrats managed to pick up some of those toss ups so the current seat counts aren’t quite that skewed, but the potential is certainly there.

Our maps were so bad they were struck down seven separate times in a months-long Groundhog’s Day nightmare of redraws. Republicans would adopt a map, the Ohio Supreme Court would strike it down and toss it back to the mappers, and then Republicans would again churn out a new map that ignored everything the court — and our constitution — required them to do. 

To give you a sense of just how ludicrous this cycle of redraws was, in one round, Republicans adopted a new map that was 99.7% identical to one the court had just struck down as unconstitutional and demanded they fix in its entirety. In another round they, in an appalling defiance of the state’s highest court, simply didn’t submit a new map.

Thanks to fairly weak language in our reforms, there was almost nothing the Ohio Supreme Court could do to rein in the lawless Republicans (though I contend they should have held them in contempt for their brazen defiance of court orders). And so, Ohio voted last year under maps that give Republicans outsized control of our state legislature and congressional delegation in direct violation of anti-gerrymandering constitutional language they helped author.

What now? We wait. 

A congressional map redraw won’t start (at least) until the U.S. Supreme Court provides some response to Republicans’ independent state legislature theory-anchored appeal. And while there’s nothing technically standing in the way of Republicans redrawing the state legislative maps right now (or, really, at any point in the more than one year since they were ordered to do so by the Ohio Supreme Court), my guess is we won’t likely see any mapping action until, at the absolute earliest, September. Legislators are still busy hammering out our state budget and then we have to see how Ohioans’ right to majority rule fares in an August special election Republicans resurrected for the sole purpose of blocking a forthcoming abortion rights ballot initiative.

I noted earlier that there’s almost nothing we can do to stop Republicans from gerrymandering again and that’s unfortunately true. But that doesn’t mean we’re totally out of options. If Ohioans want maps that are actually fair, we must get politicians out of the mapping process all together. But to do that, we first have to defend our right to amend the state constitution for the people by opposing Republicans’ attack on direct democracy.

Katy Shanahan is an attorney and activist in her home state of Ohio where she continues to fight for fair maps and expansive voting laws in the Buckeye State. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Shanahan writes about the state of voting rights in Ohio as well as redistricting both in Ohio and across the country.