With Help From Dems, Ohio Has Gerrymandering Déjà Vu

Blue background with red-toned shape of Ohio with a door knob and sign on the door knob that reads "OUT FOR LUNCH WILL BE BACK IN 782 DAYS"

After 782 days and five bipartisan court strike downs of illegal Republican gerrymanders, Ohio is closing out its 2021 mapping cycle with Democrats caving on maps that’ll likely relegate them to super-minorities for the rest of the decade.

Before I dive into how utterly infuriating it is to have a new set of bipartisan illegally gerrymandered maps for my beloved home state of Ohio that violate not just our state constitution and the will of us voters, but also five still-binding court orders to draw fair maps, let’s do a quick rewind of how we’ve bumbled our way through this fifth redraw of our state legislative districts.

Going into Tuesday of this week, all we had to show for the more than two years-long mapping process that officially started back in August 2021 were four sets of maps adopted solely by Republican redistricting commissioners — all of which had been struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. And, since our reform language in 2015 didn’t grant the court any authority to either draw their own maps or to declare which maps must be used, we’ve found ourselves in a seemingly endless doom loop of map redraws. 

(If you need a refresher on the previous rounds of mapping, check out the Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map episode of This American Life and my recent article, Ohio’s Wobbly and Ongoing Path to Fair Maps.)

opinion Ohio’s Wobbly and Ongoing Path to Fair Maps

By Katy Shanahan, Democracy Docket contributor.

The commissioners’ lawless behavior has now carried on long enough that they not only managed to force us to vote under illegal maps in 2022, but they have also successfully outlasted the lineup of bipartisan Ohio Supreme Court justices who struck down the commission’s maps five different times. Former Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor provided an instrumental swing vote for each of the prior rulings, but she retired at the end of last year due to age limits and her replacement is much more fervently to the right.

On Aug. 30 — 15 months after the last court order was issued requiring the commission to redraw our maps — Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) sent a letter to his fellow commissioners detailing a self-imposed deadline of Sept. 22 for when new maps needed to be passed. And so we began this fifth redraw much like we did the very first phase of this process, under a false sense of urgency from Republicans who wasted months of doing nothing on redistricting but who sprang into action at the last minute, claiming there’s no other option than to rush things through. 

But, despite their best efforts to get to work, a classic Ohio tale of Republican infighting at the direct cost of governing caused a weeklong logjam, delaying the commission’s ability to convene for a week.

You see, it’s not enough that Republicans hold five of the seven seats on the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which is charged with drawing our state legislative maps. Or that they now have a much more friendly and ideologically conservative state Supreme Court likely to greenlight any gerrymanders the commissioners want to adopt. Or that they already got away with running one election cycle under maps even more gerrymandered than the ones we had 10 years and two anti-gerrymandering reforms ago. 

No, there is always room for more when it comes to just how far Republicans will go to capture all the power they possibly can.

In the initial four rounds of our redistricting process, Republican gerrymandering extraordinaire Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman effectively ran the show; his counterpart then-Speaker Bob Cupp was on his way out of state government because of term limits and was apparently fine with Huffman calling the shots — both in terms of what the maps looked like and how the process would unfold. 

But this time, the power dynamics between the two Republican legislative leaders are much different. Huffman, who is termed out in the Senate, plans to run for a state House seat next year and to immediately run to become Ohio’s next House speaker. The only issue with that is current House Speaker Jason Stephens (R) has no plans to give up the Lincoln Chair, setting up what should be an entertaining battle royale for the speaker’s gavel. 

The power struggle between Huffman and Stephens reared its head not only behind the scenes while they battled over what the new legislative maps looked like — each wanting to shore up votes for the speaker’s race — but also out in public when they couldn’t come to an agreement about who to choose as their Republican co-chair for the commission (something they’re required by law to do together). Their stalemate caused Gov. Mike DeWine (R) to end the first commission meeting after just four minutes and to refuse to call another meeting until the commissioners could show everyone that they could, in fact, play nicely in the sandbox together.

Ultimately, Huffman and Stephens resolved their differences (they selected Republican state Auditor Keith Faber to serve as co-chair) and, after an informal opinion from Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) stating that they could, in fact, meet even without co-chairs, the commission finally came back to order last week for its next meeting. It was at that point that Ohioans first got to see long-awaited proposed maps from the Republicans and, boy, were they a doozy.

Despite five rulings from the Ohio Supreme Court to draw maps that reflect the 54% Republican — 46% Democratic partisanship of our state, Republicans unveiled maps last week under which they could win a staggering 73% of our legislative seats — a 3% increase over what they occupy under our current districts. But these new maps — even more gerrymandered than the illegal ones we voted under last year — weren’t the most shocking part of this fifth redraw process.

No, the most shocking twist revealed itself at the 11th hour when it became public that the two lone Democrats on the commission had struck a deal with Republicans and would be lending their support to new maps. These new maps were negotiated and drawn entirely behind closed doors, violating both Ohio’s Sunshine Law and also the constitutional requirements for our mapping process, including that there is transparency in map drawing and that negotiations between commission members occur out in the open during public hearings.

After a nine-hour recess, the commission came back into order at 10:15 p.m. on Tuesday night and unveiled new bipartisan maps that were released to the public initially through PDFs on the commission’s website, but soon thereafter on Dave’s Redistricting. State Sen. Rob McColley (R) offered the public “a few seconds” to review the maps before he began a regional explanation of how the maps were different from the Republican-proposed ones we saw last week.

Let me be blunt: the new bipartisan maps are still illegal partisan gerrymanders that will cement our status quo with Democrats in super-minorities, but this time potentially until 2032. They also violate five clear orders from the Ohio Supreme Court.

Ultimately Ohio’s redistricting process has boiled down to how, with the help of Democrats, Republicans can best maximize and expand their outsized and illegal grips on political power. 

The new bipartisan maps pave a path for Republicans to walk away with up to 67% of our legislative seats despite having earned just 54% of our votes in the last decade. And they only provide Democrats 35 safe seats in the House (35% of the chamber) and just nine safe seats (27%) in the Senate despite the fact that Democrats have earned 46% of Ohioans’ votes in the last decade.

For the life of me, I cannot come up with a single legitimate justification for why these maps earned Democrats’ support. The only explanation is that Democrats’ sole objective — just like is the case with Republicans — was to protect their incumbents and to put the interest of politicians above that of the people. It is utterly outrageous.

Just like every other set of maps proposed and adopted by Republicans, these new ones that shockingly garnered the support of the Democratic commissioners are masterful in how they crack and pack Ohio’s Black communities, thus undermining the political power of those communities and rendering their votes utterly meaningless. 

They are also masterfully drawn to ultimately kneecap the power of Ohio’s most populous urban centers — not uncoincidentally where the bulk of the state’s Democratic voters live — by packing Democrats into as few districts as possible and then cracking apart suburban outer-ring communities to drown them out in otherwise rural, conservative districts. 

To be clear, I have never expected Republicans to deliver us fair maps in this process. But I had hoped that we could count on the Democrats to hold the line on upholding the law and the will of Ohio voters. Both Democrats issued statements on Tuesday decrying the process — one going so far as to label it “a sham” — and denouncing the maps as not meeting constitutional muster as proof politicians shouldn’t draw the lines, but then immediately proved their own point by voting for them anyway. 

In my mind, this makes them no different than back in September 2021 when DeWine said that he wished the commission had come up with “more clearly constitutional” maps or when LaRose called both the 2021 maps and the justification for them “asinine” before both voting in favor of them. 

By lending their support for these maps that will likely keep them locked into super-minorities, the Democratic legislative leaders are now complicit in otherwise Republican efforts to undermine our democracy and the power of the people. They are complicit in violating the state constitution and multiple Ohio Supreme Court orders. And they have also helped undermine our efforts to establish an independent redistricting commission by giving Republicans an argument against why we need to replace our current partisan process. 

Why, after all, would we need a new process when the commissioners have managed to come to bipartisan consensus for new, “better” maps? In other words, the Democratic legislative leaders have lent credence to democracy’s biggest opponent.

Suffice it to say, more than two years into this godforsaken process, nearly every bit of it is even worse than it was at any other point. The only upside to this entire debacle is that you couldn’t possibly create a better campaign ad for why Ohio needs to get politicians — both Democrats and Republicans — out of the mapping business all together and, instead, create an independent redistricting commission.

Ultimately — as has unfortunately and infuriatingly been the case from the very beginning — Ohio’s redistricting process has boiled down to how, with the help of Democrats, Republicans can best maximize and expand their outsized and illegal grips on political power. 

But I walk away from what I can only hope is the last chapter of the 2021 redistricting cycle knowing that both Democrats and Republicans have given us an incredible gift with their arrogance, dysfunction and endless drive to consolidate power away from the people: they themselves have made clear to all Ohioans why partisan politicians can neither be trusted nor deserve to be involved in redistricting. 

It’s time to take away their pens and, instead, put the people into the driver’s seat of our democracy. Thankfully, efforts are already underway to do just that with the Citizens Not Politicians campaign, which is working to put a constitutional amendment measure on the November 2024 ballot to create a 15-member independent redistricting commission. If it passes, the new commission would redraw new, actually fair maps in 2025.

Without a doubt the Citizens Not Politicians effort is our best shot at crawling back democracy in Ohio and restoring power back to the people.

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.