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Two sue panel over new Congress map

Claim violations of Voting Rights Act

A Youngstown pastor and a community activist, who are both African American, filed a federal lawsuit against the Ohio Redistricting Commission, its five Republican members individually and Attorney General Dave Yost contending new congressional and state Senate maps violate the U.S. Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising black voters.

The lawsuit, filed by the Rev. Kenneth L. Simon and Helen Youngblood, pointed to testimony from Republicans who drew the maps that show “clear evidence that the legislative leadership in Ohio intentionally disregarded whether the proposed districts diluted black voting strength or the existence among other things of racial block voting.”

It added: “The state not only intentionally decided to ignore race and the Voting Rights Act, but also previous judicial findings of official racial discrimination in legislative redistricting in Ohio.”

Simon is senior pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Youngstown, chairman of the Community Mobilization Committee and president of the board of directors of the Mahoning Valley Association of Churches.

Youngblood is a community activist and former labor leader who is chairwoman of the Mahoning Valley 1619 Project.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission voted 5-2 on Sept. 15 in favor of state Senate districts including one that added Carroll County to an existing district that takes in all of Mahoning — with Youngstown as its most-populous city — and Columbiana counties.

“The black residents of Youngstown and Warren (the most-populous city in Trumbull County) are also a sufficiently large and geographically compact population to constitute an influential vote in a single-member Senate district,” the lawsuit reads.

The commission’s two Democratic members voted against the Republican-drawn map and thus aren’t being sued because they didn’t “engage in intentional racial discrimination,” according to the lawsuit.

COMMISSION’S ROLE

The commission had nothing to do with the congressional redistricting, as that was handled by the Republican leadership in the state Legislature, including House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, and Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, who are commission members and named in the lawsuit.

The Republican-controlled Legislature put all of Mahoning County in a congressional district with Trumbull, Columbiana, Carroll, Jefferson, Harrison, Belmont, Noble and Monroe counties and all of Washington County except for four townships.

The state Senate and the congressional districts are considered safe for Republicans based on voting trends during the past decade in partisan statewide elections.

“The new (congressional) district will result in illegal and unconstitutional dilution of the black vote” in Youngstown because there are few African-Americans in the rest of the district except in Warren, the lawsuit reads.

Instead, Mahoning County should have been in a district with “more racially diverse” populations in adjacent counties such as Stark, Summit or Cuyahoga, according to the lawsuit. “The black residents of Youngstown and Warren are a sufficiently large and geographically compact population to constitute an influential vote in a congressional district (and) are politically cohesive and vote as a bloc.”

IN THE PAST

For the past 20 years, Mahoning, Summit and Trumbull have made up the overwhelming majority of a congressional district that has been represented by Tim Ryan, D-Howland, who is white.

Because the maps didn’t get support from Democrats, they are good for only four years rather than 10 years. Also, both are the subject of multiple lawsuits in the Ohio Supreme Court from groups that contend they are gerrymandered to unfairly favor Republicans.

The maps dilute “black voting strength and deprives plaintiffs and other black voters in Youngstown and elsewhere in Ohio of an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit also mentions a few times that an African-American has never been elected to a countywide office in Mahoning and that the “use of at large elections in Mahoning County enhances the opportunity for discrimination against blacks due to racially polarized voting.”

It added: “Blacks in Youngstown bear the effects of discrimination in such areas as education, employment and health, which hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process as evidenced by the record-setting murder rate in Youngstown.”

SEPARATE MOTION

The lawsuit says the election of Mahoning County officeholders through a countywide vote violates the Voting Rights Act.

While none of the people being sued have control over that issue, the lawsuit states they “intentionally proposed, enacted and intend to administer and enforce this plan and election procedures to deny and abridge their right to vote on account of race or color.”

Regarding at-large elections in the county, the lawsuit said the plaintiffs will “file a separate motion for temporary and preliminary equitable relief.”

U.S. District Court Judge John R. Adams, based in Akron, was assigned to the case.

Percy Squire is the attorney for Simon and Youngblood.

He was involved in a successful 1991 lawsuit to create a Youngstown-centric state House district to give African-Americans an opportunity to hold that seat.

Sylvester Patton of Youngstown, an African-American, served in that seat for 10 years until the end of 2006. He was succeeded by Robert F. Hagan and then Hagan’s wife, Michele Lepore-Hagan, who are both white and Youngstown residents.

dskolnick@vindy.com

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