Staff and wire report
A panel of federal judges ruled Friday that Ohio’s congressional districts were unconstitutionally drawn by the Republicans for their political advantage, and it ordered a new map for the 2020 elections.
The ruling, if it stands, could prove an important victory for the Democrats, who are hoping redrawn boundaries will not only help them pick up House seats but also energize voters and boost turnout in this longtime battleground state, helping them defeat President Donald Trump.
The panel unanimously declared the current map an “unconstitutional partisan gerrymander,” saying the GOP-controlled Ohio Legislature put the Democrats at a disadvantage by packing them into four districts and scattering them across the remaining 12.
“Democratic candidates must run a significantly longer distance to get to the same finish line,” the judges wrote in a 301-page ruling.
The Republicans hold a 12-4 advantage in Ohio’s congressional delegation under the current map, which went into effect for the 2012 elections.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said the opinion has no Constitutional basis and the state would seek a stay of the decision and appeal it.
“Ohioans already voted to reform how we draw our congressional maps. This protracted opinion takes that decision out of the hands of the people and is a fundamentally political act that has no basis whatsoever in the Constitution,” he said in a release Friday.
The ruling is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is already considering what could prove to be a major gerrymandering case, involving challenges to congressional maps in North Carolina, drawn by Republicans, and Maryland, created by Democrats.
Some Democrats have said that after years of lopsided congressional races, newly competitive districts could generate voter excitement in a state that Trump won in 2016 after Barack Obama carried it twice. And that, in turn, could influence the White House race.
“That could very well change the turnout for the presidential race,” said Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper said. “It’s a bad day for Republicans in Washington, and it’s a bad day for Donald Trump.”
The judges — Karen Allen Moore, Timothy Black and Michael Watson — ordered a proposed new map by June 20. Moore and Black were nominated by Democratic presidents, Watson by a Republican. They heard arguments in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati in March.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, released the following statement: “We cannot allow gerrymandered maps to rob Ohioans of their constitutional right to have their voice fairly represented in Congress. For too long, politicians in Columbus and across the country – including Maryland and North Carolina – have rigged the system with gerrymandered maps at the expense of voters. Today’s ruling is one more step toward making sure every voter’s voice is heard, but we still have a lot of work ahead to fight back against voter suppression in Ohio and across the country.”
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan said: “This is a huge victory for the state of Ohio and our democracy.”
Ryan of Howland, D-13th, added: “Partisan gerrymandering has become the unfortunate status quo in the United States, and it’s about time we end this undemocratic practice. These unfair maps perpetuate a cycle where districts are drawn to benefit the people in power. Ohio voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around. We must still remain vigilant and ensure that state elected officials draw a truly bipartisan, fair map. Fair maps mean fair elections.”
Ryan represents five counties, including most of Mahoning and Trumbull, in a predominantly Democratic district though it has become less Democratic in recent years.
State Rep. Michele Lepore Hagan of Youngstown, D-58th, echoed Ryan’s “victory” sentiment, and said Ohio’s legislative districts are “really unfairly drawn,” especially at the state level.
“It’s a big deal. It’s really about fairness. It’s another example of how the courts are ruling against actions that are done behind-the-scenes, behind-closed-doors, not transparent and … mostly out of the view of voters,” she said.
“The present Legislature and legislative decisions and congressional decisions I don’t think reflect who we are as Ohioans,” Lepore Hagan said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, declined Friday to comment on the court case through his spokesman Ben Keeler. Keeler said that was “because the litigation is ongoing.”
Johnson represents 18 counties including the southern portion of Mahoning and all of Columbiana in a district that runs along the Ohio River and is largely Republican. It’s the longest congressional district in the state, taking in more than 300 miles.
“That’s just a big district, that’s a lot of coverage,” said state Rep. Don Manning of New Middletown, R-58th, of Johnson’s 6th District. “If they could make it a little easier to represent a district, I would be OK with that.”
Manning also added he’s concerned redistricting could cause Ohio to lose a congressional seat or two following the 2020 Census.
“Republicans being in the majority doesn’t hurt my feelings. I would personally prefer that,” he said.
Voters’ rights and Democratic groups had sued Ohio Republican officials, saying redistricting after the 2010 census yielded a map that has produced an impenetrable GOP advantage. Among the examples cities was Cincinnati, a Democrat-dominated city split into two districts, both held by Republicans.
Attorneys for the Republicans said the map was drawn with bipartisan support and noted that each party lost one seat after reapportionment reduced Ohio’s House delegation because of population shifts. The delegation went from 13-5 Republican to 12-4.
“This is called democracy in action,” said GOP attorney Phil Strach, adding that both parties supported “incumbency protection” — or making it more likely an incumbent will win — because that benefits all Ohioans by giving their delegation more clout in Washington.