Another State Says to Hell With Gerrymandering

Ohio’s gerrymandered congressional map was just too much for its courts to accept. Graphic: Ohio Redistricting Commission

For those keeping score on the decennial redistricting process, the latest judicial development from Ohio is a blow to Republican hopes of gerrymandering their way to a U.S. House majority, whether or not they make popular-vote gains in November. That state’s Supreme Court ruled that the congressional map drawn by Republican legislators designed to give the GOP a 12–3 or possibly a 13–2 advantage in the Ohio congressional delegation violated Ohio’s constitution. The 4–3, with one Republican crossing party lines, came in the wake of an earlier ruling striking down gerrymandered state legislative maps. The court has given legislators 30 days to come up with a less partisan congressional scheme.

Ohio’s House delegation is currently 12–4 Republican (the state lost one district in national reapportionment), the product of a blatant gerrymander in the last decennial districting, in what was then a very competitive state (now it leans notably Republican, but not remotely by a 4–1 margin). What’s changed in the view of the court is a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018, which bans “a plan that unduly favors or disfavors a political party or its incumbents.” The legislators surely did that, in part by dividing Democratic-friendly Hamilton County (Cincinnati) into three districts. It was already divided into two districts by the last gerrymander.

Under the ruling, the legislature has 30 days to come up with an acceptable map. It got the job to begin with because a nonpartisan commission set up by the same constitutional amendment that banned gerrymandering couldn’t reach agreement on the district lines.

Whatever specifically happens in Ohio, the ruling shows that state constitutions may become the most fruitful means of restricting partisan gerrymandering in the absence of a federal ban (currently being blocked by a Republican Senate filibuster of two voting rights bills containing anti-gerrymandering rules for federal elections) and in view of the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to interfere with state redistricting decisions unless they are blatantly racial in character. It’s true that the Supreme Court deferred to state legislatures in two landmark 2019 decisions that dashed hopes for judicially imposed limits on partisan gerrymandering as a matter of federal constitutional law. But a bit earlier, SCOTUS had also deferred to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision interpreting that state’s constitution to overturn a Republican gerrymander there.

So the Ohio court’s decision is likely the final word in that state. Opponents of partisan gerrymandering would do well to spend the time between now and the next decennial redistricting preparing lawsuits that keep state legislators from stacking the deck. It will very likely prove necessary so long as Republicans in Washington, and around the country, believe they don’t have the popular support to impose their policies without anti-democratic contrivances like the Electoral College, the Senate filibuster, voter suppression laws, and gerrymandering.

Another State Says to Hell With Gerrymandering