COLUMBUS, Ohio (Cincinnati Enquirer) - Ohio won’t draw a new congressional map until 2022 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled federal courts shouldn’t play a role in fixing partisan gerrymandering.
The decision came as a blow to Ohioans seeking a new map after a panel of judges found it had been crafted to favor Republicans over Democrats. And Hamilton County's two GOP-leaning districts will remain intact until at least 2022 – when Ohio draws new lines.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in Maryland and North Carolina cases that federal courts shouldn't police map making.
"We have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us in the exercise of such authority," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority in the 5-4 decision.
Ohio’s case is expected to be dismissed shortly, according to our media partners at The Cincinnati Enquirer.
What was the issue in Ohio?
Statehouse and congressional district lines are drawn every 10 years, following the census. Republicans controlled the process in Ohio last. Those maps, put in place in 2012, ensured Republican majorities and that incumbents from both parties could keep their seats.
The ACLU of Ohio sued over the map last year, on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, A. Philip Randolph Institute and voters who claimed they were disenfranchised by the maps.
In May, a three-judge panel found that Ohio’s congressional map was rigged to favor Republicans.
“Either the Republicans were exceedingly lucky, or their map drawers made exceedingly expert use of political data to manipulate district lines to secure the most seats and the least amount of competition possible,” the court wrote. “The evidence in this case points to the latter conclusion.”
Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissent joined by the three other liberal justices, noted that Ohio Democrats have never won more than four of 16 House seats despite winning between 39 and 47 percent of the statewide vote.
“We are disappointed in the decision but we will persist,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “The League of Women Voters has been working against partisan gerrymandering since the 1960s and nothing will stop us from defending the rights of voters.”
Why can’t the courts decide?
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that if states draw lines to favor one party over the other, it's not the courts' job to fix.
In states where maps have been challenged, plaintiffs have argued statistical “tests” can show maps were drawn for partisan advantage and to what degree. One test, called the efficiency gap, calculates how many votes were “wasted” in districts where the representative won by a large margin.
In Thursday’s opinion, Roberts wrote that none of the tests meet the standard of being able to apply to all situations.
“…none meets the need for a limited and precise standard that is judicially discernible and manageable,” Roberts wrote. “And none provides a solid grounding for judges to take the extraordinary step of reallocating power and influence between political parties.”
Kagan wrote that federal courts in Ohio and other states have been able to determine partisan gerrymandering by using a three-part “test.” In such a test, she wrote, challengers must prove the party in power intended to solidify its power by diluting votes and the lines had that effect, while mapmakers must present a “legitimate, nonpartisan” reason for the map.
Is there any remedy for gerrymandering?
Roberts noted there are two ways to remedy partisan gerrymandering:
- States can enact changes, either putting the process in the hands of an independent commission or specifying criteria maps must follow.
- Congress can change the redistricting process, as allowed by the Constitution’s Elections Clause.
However, those remedies are limited by the will of the Legislature to fix partisan maps, said ACLU of Ohio attorney Freda Levenson.
"The court is leaving it in the hands of the legislature, but the legislature is where the problem is originating," she said.
Ohio voters have twice in recent years overwhelmingly voted to reform Ohio’s redistricting process: for Statehouse districts in 2015 and congressional districts in 2018.
Those changes are good steps, Levenson said, but they won't stop the majority party from controlling the map-making process in Ohio.
Politicians still craft both types of maps, but maps will need greater approval from minority party members and have to follow new rules aimed at keeping districts compact.
The new map-making process has "very serious limitations," Levenson said and still allows for the drawing of a gerrymandered map.
The next maps will be crafted in 2021 and take effect for the 2022 election.
Kagan warned in her dissent that gerrymandering will get worse as technology advances.
"What was possible with paper and pen – or even with Windows 95 – doesn’t hold a candle (or an LED bulb?) to what will become possible with developments like machine learning," Kagan wrote. "And someplace along this road, 'we the people' become sovereign no longer."
What did Ohio politicos say?
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper called the decision "disappointing."
"But it doesn’t alter the factual finding of the U.S. Southern District of Ohio: that Republicans have cynically and secretly rigged Ohio elections for a decade," he said.
Ohio Republican Party Executive Director Rob Secaur said called the case a political Hail Mary from the Democrats.
"Shame on them, it’s no wonder they lose election after election," said Secaur, adding that the Ohio Republican Party supported the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Ohio Speaker Larry Householder, a defendant in the Ohio gerrymandering case, said the decision came as no surprise.
“The court confirmed, as we have said all along, this is not a question for the court but a political question that is properly left to the states," said Householder, a Perry County Republican.