The Ohio Supreme Court struck down a skewed congressional map in favor of Republicans Friday, ruling it equaled a dealer piling deck, and sending it back to state lawmakers to try again.
The map would have given Republicans a 12-to-three seat advantage in the House elections, even though the Republican Party recently won only about 55 percent of the popular vote statewide.
“This is not what Ohio voters want or expect,” the court said of the map.
Ohio’s mapmakers aren’t allowed to unduly favor one party in redistricting, after voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment to Ohio’s constitution in 2018. The proposed map was drawn up by Republicans in the legislature and passed without Democratic support, and was rejected by the Court on 4 to 3 resolution.
“When the dealer stacks the deck up front, usually the house wins,” Justice Michael Donnelly wrote of the majority, adding that the Republican plan was “imbued with needless partisan bias.”
The constitutional amendment was an attempt to end partisan manipulation in the state, and voting rights groups that brought the suit, including the Ohio League of Women Voters, argued that Republican lawmakers ignored the law.
Quick overview of redistricting
Every 10 years, every state in the United States is required to redraw the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts in a process known as redistricting.
The court agreed, saying that the evidence “makes it beyond reasonable doubt that the General Assembly has not responded to the unequivocal call of Ohio voters to stop political manipulation.”
When the case was heard last month, Republicans argued that the districts were fair and fulfilled the Constitution’s requirement not to be “unfavorably unfavorable,” and that Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat re-elected in 2018, would have secured eight of the 15 new districts. The Republicans also said they secured six competitive seats in the House of Representatives.
When the map was signed into law in November, Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican facing a major challenge from his right this year, called the GOP’s plan “a fair, compact and competitive map.”
But the court strongly disagreed. She said the Republicans’ plan violated the law by dividing Democratic-leaning counties in order to weaken their votes, including Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati. The court said Hamilton County was divided among three newly drawn counties “with no apparent reason other than to grant an undue partisan advantage to the Republican Party.”
The Ohio Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.
Lawmakers have 30 days to fix congressional maps. If they fail, the mapping passes to the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which will give another 30 days. But there is a strict deadline looming: March 4, when candidates must submit their papers to run.
The court’s decision came two days after it crossed out Republican maps of new state and Senate counties.
In both cases, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, joined three Democratic justices to turn the maps.
Some analysts said any congressional map accepted by the court could give Democrats two to three additional seats in Ohio.
Understand how redistricting works
What is demarcation? It is the redistricting of legislative districts in Congress and the state. It occurs every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in the population.
The US Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling that partisan mapping cannot be challenged in federal courts means that state courts are now the remaining judicial avenue to challenge partisan gerrymandering — at least in states like Ohio where it is prohibited by the Constitution.
A case in the North Carolina Supreme Court is also seeking to overturn the GOP leader. Republicans there will control as many as 11 of the state’s 14 House seats with the new maps, compared to the party’s current advantage of eight to five. A lower court on Tuesday upheld the maps.
State court cases play a role in a landscape of diminishing prospects for Democrats and voting rights groups seeking to rein in partisan gerrymandering. Broad congressional voting rights legislation backed by President Biden and his party that would limit gerrymandering in electoral districts took a fatal blow this week from Senator Kirsten Senema, a Democrat from Arizona, who said she would not support changing the obstruction rule to pass.
In Ohio, Democrats celebrated the court’s decision. “Once again, the Ohio Supreme Court has done what the legislature refused to do — it listened to the will of Ohio voters,” Elizabeth Walters, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, said in a statement. “Any map that further strengthens our state in favor of one party over the other is unacceptable and we will monitor it closely.”