A federal three-judge panel on Friday struck down Ohio’s congressional map as a partisan gerrymander, providing fodder for voting rights advocates seeking a definitive Supreme Court ruling about the way electoral lines are drawn.
The ruling comes a week after a different federal court in Michigan also ordered district lines redrawn to address boundaries that unfairly benefitted one party. In both cases, the maps favored Republicans, and the decisions gave Democrats hope of making inroads in 2020.
“This means courts are stepping up and ending an unconstitutional practice,” said Alora Thomas-Lundborg, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberty Union’s Voting Rights Project, a plaintiff in the Ohio case. “This is the court saying voters get to pick who is going to represent them, and not the other way around.”
But the National Republican Redistricting Trust issued a statement saying the court used “constitutionally dubious reasoning” and urged the Supreme Court to throw the case out.
“Democrats have lost consistently and impressively in Ohio for a decade,” the group said. “That has nothing to do with the maps and everything to do with how out of touch modern Democrats are with the people of Ohio.”
Voting rights advocates have long argued that it is unconstitutional for politicians to draw district lines to entrench party control. But the argument has picked up steam in recent years as a series of challenges have made their way through the courts.
The Supreme Court declined to decide on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin and Maryland last summer but revived hopes of a landmark decision this term. Last month, it heard arguments challenging maps drawn by Republicans in North Carolina and by Democrats in Maryland map. It is expected to rule by the end of June.
The federal ruling last week that invalidated portions of Michigan’s Republican-drawn congressional and legislative maps is being appealed by the Michigan Senate to the Supreme Court.
In the Ohio case, Democratic voters from each of Ohio’s 16 districts, as well as two non-partisan and three Democratic organizations challenged the map drawn by a GOP-controlled legislature in 2011 and first used in 2012.
The court found that “invidious partisan intent — the intent to disadvantage Democratic voters and entrench Republican representatives in power — dominated the map-drawing process.”
It ruled that the state must use a new map in 2020, and gave lawmakers until June 14 to enact a remedial plan.
Ohio Republicans are expected to request a stay on that ruling until the Supreme Court issues its decision in the North Carolina and Maryland cases. If the court declines to issue a definitive ruling on the practice, the Ohio case could be on its docket soon.
Thomas-Lundborg, of the ACLU, said inaction by the court could also mean an increase in partisan maps in future elections.
“Ohio is currently an extreme, an outlier,” she said. “It’s one of a handful of states that drew maps with such naked, partisan intent and effect. But if the the court fails to act, it will no longer be an outlier.”
The case also holds potential for an electoral upset in 2020. Ohio has long been considered a swing state in presidential elections but the majority of its 16 congressional seats have been held by Republicans since the GOP-led legislature drew the district lines after the 2010 census.
The court found that Republicans in the state legislature designed the new maps using software that allowed them to predict the partisan outcome of races. They had help from national Republicans, including then-Speaker John A. Boehner, the court found.
‘Snake on the lake’
The resulting maps fractured Democratic votes and watered down the voting power of African American communities while bolstering Republican chances. One of the new districts took on, “a strange, squiggly, curving shape,” the court found. Another was referred to as a “sinkhole” for Democrats. Yet another became, “a bizarre, elongated sliver of a district” along Lake Erie colloquially described as, “the snake on the lake.”
National Democrats spent money in a special election in Ohio’s 12th District last summer and targeted several GOP incumbents during the midterms but came up short in all of those races.
Republicans now hold 12 of the state’s 16 congressional seats, or 75 percent of the districts, despite winning 52 percent of the vote in all of the districts statewide in 2018. Democrats, who won 47 percent of the vote, got 25 percent of the seats.
Races in two of the districts, won by Republican Reps. Troy Balderson and Steve Chabot, were decided last year by less than 15,000 votes each. At the same time, Democratic Reps. Joyce Beatty and Marcia Fudge were re-elected by margins of 116,535 and 161,652 votes, respectively.
“For too long, our communities have suffered and been marginalized through an abuse of power with gerrymandering,” state Rep. Stephanie Howse said in a statement issued by the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. “Ohioans have been clamoring for change to our electoral maps.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not included any Ohio seats on its initial list of targets for 2020.