Ahead of midterm elections, the Ohio ACLU takes gerrymandering reform a step further, filing a lawsuit declaring Ohio’s current congressional map unconstitutional

2018-06-19T08:25:33+00:00 May 31st, 2018|

By Timmy Broderick; additional reporting (on the interactive map) by Ariel Miller
Data Visualization by Kevin Huber

On May 8, Ohioans went to the polls and overwhelmingly voted in support of Issue 1, an amendment for congressional redistricting reform in the Buckeye State. The measure goes into effect after the 2020 U.S. Census, when congressional districts will next be redrawn. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio feels that’s too long to wait for reform, having filed a lawsuit last week asking a federal court to strike down the state’s current congressional map immediately.

“The voters shouldn’t have to wait until 2022,” says Freda Levenson, the legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, of the first election that will be impacted by Issue 1. “This lawsuit addresses a problem that we’re facing now.”

“The voters shouldn’t have to wait until 2022 [for gerrymandering reform]. This lawsuit addresses a problem that we’re facing now.”

The problem? Thanks to a congressional redistricting scheme cooked up after the 2010 U.S. census by Republicans (the party in power in Ohio at the time and, hence, the party that drew the current map), the GOP has had a lock on 12 out of Ohio’s 16 U.S. congressional seats in the last three elections, despite receiving less than 60 percent of the vote share during that time — and as little as 51 percent in 2012. Through such gerrymandering tactics as “packing” (concentrating the opposing party’s voting power into as few districts as possible), “cracking” (diluting the opposing party’s voting power over as many districts as possible), and “hijacking” (drawing two or more incumbent representatives from the opposing party into the same district), many Democratic votes have been made redundant, a practice the ACLU says is unconstitutional.

In fact, the lawsuit argues that the current map violates three parts of the U.S. Constitution: Regarding the 1st Amendment, says Levenson, “voters are being punished for having voted Democratic and for associating with the Democratic party … that’s a violation of the right to free speech and political association. It’s also a violation of the 14th, which guarantees equal protection. Obviously, Democrats aren’t receiving equal protection. The third constitutional violation is the elections clause. And that says the state is required to run elections.” The current Ohio map was spearheaded by the Republican National Committee.

Though the lawsuit would benefit Ohio Democrats, Levenson says this is not a partisan lawsuit.

“If the voters want to choose a Republican representative, that’s fine, if they want a Democratic representative, that’s fine,” she says. “But the people drawing the map shouldn’t decide.”

According to Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a big advocate for Issue 1, voting is not just a symbolic action.

“The reason we really should care about gerrymandering is we want to participate in meaningful elections, and gerrymandering dilutes the power of our votes,” she says.

Historically, Ohio’s map was created by the state legislature and only needed a simple majority to pass. Issue 1 changes that procedure to one in which various amounts of bipartisanship and supermajorities are required to pass a map. The state legislature gets first crack at it, but requires 60-percent approval (instead of a simple majority) of each house and at least one half of the members of each of the top two political parties; if they fail, the onus falls to a seven-member committee; if that fails, then the state legislature gets another chance, but needs less bipartisan support; if the first three options fail, then a simple majority can pass a map, but it has to provide a written statement showing how it’s not partisan. Finally, each map will only last for four years, rather than 10.

“We are having conversations as Ohioans and as a country about what are the things we need to do to make our democracy more robust,” says Turcer. “And this is definitely one of those systemic things that we can do to make our democracy more effective and more robust and to have our elections be more meaningful.”

“We are having conversations as Ohioans and as a country about what are the things we need to do to make our democracy more robust.”

While the ACLU did not endorse Issue 1, many of the plaintiffs in the organization’s lawsuit — including the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute — did publicly endorse the ballot measure. Still, there are concerns about Issue 1, particularly what happens if the steps with bipartisan support fail to produce maps.

“Because Issue 1 can dissolve into a single party drawing the map, it offers the opportunity for partisan advantage,” says Levenson. “It puts some limits on the standards of the map, but they’re vague and relatively relaxed.”

Others have echoed Levenson’s skepticism, calling into question the legitimacy of a reform process in which the majority party retains ultimate control. The seven-person committee also only mandates that two members are from the minority party.

The text of Issue 1 does not just change the redistricting process, it also is prescriptive, calling for compact districts that don’t split counties more than twice, favor one particular party, or disrupt municipal boundaries. However, nothing tethers the legislature to those prescriptions and there are no consequences for failing to do so. That’s why the ACLU lawsuit is so important, says Levenson.

“The lawsuit will put teeth into the process,” she says. “If we win this case, the federal court will have said some things about Ohio’s map about what is a constitutional and what is not a constitutional map, and that will be really important for, again, setting the standards and criteria for a good map and what’s a permissible map under the Issue 1 process. They will work together.”

Interact with the data visualization below to learn more about how gerrymandering factors into Ohio’s current map of congressional districts, and see how alternative redistricting methods could impact the state.

About the Data

These maps reflect performance in Ohio elections accounting for a variety of political conditions and do not predict the outcome of elections. A competitive district, as defined by the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index, is a district that a candidate from either party has at least a 1-in-6, or 16.67%, likelihood of winning. The maps and outcome data are from The Gerrymandering Project from FiveThirtyEight. This piece would not be possible without the heavy lifting from their team. Data from representatives and districts are from a combination of Ballotpedia, GovTrack, Congress.gov, Statistical Atlas, Politico, Ryne Rohla, and each individual representatives’ websites. Ballot information is from the Primary Issue Report from the Ohio Secretary of State.

 

 

Timmy Broderick is a journalist based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Learn more about his work at timmybroderick.com.

Kevin Huber is a news applications developer based in Nashville, Tennessee, originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. You can find more of his work and contact information here.

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