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In Ohio, Redistricting is Becoming a Much Litigated Event

September 26, 2021 by Dan McCue
Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, foreground, speaks to state Sen. Vernon Sykes, seated, the co-chair of the Ohio Redistricting Commission, as other members of the panel prepared for a meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The lawsuits keep coming over the ongoing redistricting effort in Ohio, where critics, in multiple court filings, claim Republicans are openly disregarding the rules established by public referendum six years ago.

The latest lawsuit over the newly drawn legislative district map was filed Friday by the legal arm of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the first such action by the group tied to the 2020 census.

It follows, by less than a day, the filing of a similar lawsuit by the ACLU of Ohio on behalf of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization of Black trade unionists, the League of Women Voters, and several Ohio residents.

And this is not even the first time the ACLU has taken legal action regarding the current round of redistricting. Earlier this summer it sued Ohio House Republicans who, it said, ignored a Freedom of Information Act request and failed to provide the organization with records related to the redistricting process.

The lawsuits were filed in the Ohio Supreme Court, which has original jurisdiction when it comes to deciding map challenges.

Decisions are expected quickly because without action to change the date, candidates wishing to run in the 2022 elections currently must register by Feb. 2.

The new redistricting rules, which appeared as Issue 1 on Ohio’s November 2015 ballot, garnered 71% of the vote that year. Not only did it create a new redistricting commission, it also directed the panel’s members to approve only those state legislative maps that corresponded closely to the statewide political preferences of the voters.

The maps causing all the consternation in Ohio were approved just over a week ago. In a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon, former Attorney General Eric Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said an analysis of the proposed state House and Senate districts revealed the map to be unfairly skewed in the Republicans’ favor.

The committee estimates that if an election were held with the maps as drafted, as many as 67% of the House races would favor the Republican candidates, as would 69% of the state Senate races.

“They have not earned that level of representation of Ohio voters,” Holder said on the call. “In fact, over the past decade, even with maps that were painfully gerrymandered and aiding them, Ohio Republicans earned just over 54% of the vote statewide for state legislative offices.”

Later, he said the maps clearly violate both the letter and the spirit of the 2015 referendum, which amended the state’s constitution.

To emphasize his point, Holder repeated the words “clearly violate” twice.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee lawsuit claims the Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission were not transparent during the redistricting process, “meaning the public had no opportunity to comment or provide feedback on the Commission’s intended redistricting approach.”

Those members of the public who took the time to speak at a series of hearings that commenced August 23 “found they were shouting into the wind,” the lawsuit continues. “Commission members’ attendance at public hearings ranged from spotty to non-existent.”

The Republican members of the commission are Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Auditor Keith Faber, House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman. The Democrats are Democratic House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes and state Sen. Vernon Sykes, who co-chaired the commission.

The plaintiffs, led by Democratic legislative candidate Bria Bennett of Warren, also argued that commission members willfully ignored public input by missing meetings.

“Only Co-Chair Senator Sykes attended every session. Governor DeWine did not personally attend a single session; he skipped the first scheduled hearing to attend training camp for the Cincinnati Bengals,” the lawsuit says. “The other members of the Commission also frequently sent proxies.”

The American Civil Liberties Union suit makes similar claims and goes on to say Republicans’
“brazen manipulation of district lines for extreme partisan advantage doubly dishonors the voters of this state: By adopting a map that utterly fails to correspond with voters’ preferences as manifested by the vote share of the two major parties’ candidates over the past decade; and by openly defying a constitutional amendment adopted overwhelmingly by Ohio voters just six years ago, which sought to put an end to precisely this kind of extreme partisan gerrymandering,”

Both lawsuits asked the court to declare the Republican-backed maps unconstitutional and issue an injunction preventing them from being implemented. 

They also asked for more public hearings to develop districts deemed constitutional.

Gov. DeWine told reporters before Holder held his news conference on Friday, that “we knew there will be lawsuits that will be filed” against the redistricting effort.

“The courts will make their decision, and we’ll abide by the decision,” the governor said.

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