Federal Court Strikes Down Ohio’s Gerrymandered House Map

Unskew the maps. Photo: John Minchillo/AP/REX/Shutterstock

In 2016, the Democratic Party had a poor showing in Ohio. Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton by eight points statewide, and Republicans claimed 12 of the state’s 16 House seats.

In 2012, by contrast, the Democrats had a very good night in Ohio, as Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by four points, and … Republicans claimed 12 of the state’s 16 House seats.

To many Democratic voters in the Buckeye State, the GOP’s apparent hammerlock on three-quarters of Ohio’s House delegation reflects a partisan gerrymander so severe it violates their constitutional rights. And on Friday, a federal district court in Cincinnati agreed. In its ruling, the three-judge panel barred Ohio from a holding another election on its existing map and ordered the state’s legislature to devise new district lines by June 14 — or else submit to a court-drawn map.

In reality, though, the GOP-controlled Ohio legislature probably has a third option: Wait for the (effectively) GOP-controlled Supreme Court to strike down today’s ruling. The high court’s conservative majority has repeatedly declined to declare partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional. And although the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to partisan gerrymanders in North Carolina and Maryland earlier this year, experts who observed oral arguments were left with the impression that those states’ biased maps would be upheld.

Either way, Ohio will be redrawing its maps after 2020 to comply with both the new Census and a “fair districting” constitutional amendment the state passed in 2018, which ostensibly mandates a bipartisan redistricting process. But, as Stephen Wolf of the Daily Kos explains, that reform, by itself, won’t necessarily prohibit Republicans from rigging the House map in their favor for another decade:

[The amendment] still leaves legislators and party officials in charge of the [redistricting] process. The legislature can still pass its own congressional map, though it would now need a 60 percent supermajority to do so, including the support of at least half of the members of the minority party.

If, on the other hand, the legislature can’t pass a map, it would go to the same bipartisan commission of officeholders that already handles legislative redistricting. That commission is made up of four legislators — two from each party — and the governor, secretary of state, and auditor. The panel would currently have a five-to-two Republican majority thanks to the GOP’s hold on statewide offices, but at least two votes from the minority party would be required to pass a map.

If the commission can’t reach an agreement, the legislature then gets another crack. Lawmakers would still need a 60 percent supermajority, but this time the share of votes required from the minority party would go down to just one-third. But here’s the critical part: If all these convoluted steps still fail to produce a map, the legislature gets to pass its own map with a simple majority and no minority-party veto[.]

All this said, even if the Supreme Court strikes down today’s ruling — and Ohio Republicans try to subvert the redistricting reform that passed last year — there is still one way that fair districting could prevail in the Buckeye State: If Democrats can flip two seats on Ohio’s Supreme Court in 2020, a liberal majority could find partisan gerrymandering illegitimate under the state Constitution.

Federal Court Strikes Down GOP Gerrymander in Ohio