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Ohio Supreme Court rejects newest maps for state House and Senate

The Ohio Supreme Court ordered state mapmakers back to the drawing board.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — For the second time, the Ohio Supreme Court invalidated new legislative maps proposed by the Ohio Redistricting Commission, ordering it to reconvene. 

In a 4–3 decision, the court ordered the Commission to adopt new maps that meet constitutional guidelines and file it with the Ohio Secretary of State by Feb. 17 and the Supreme Court by Feb. 18. The court also retained jurisdiction, giving it the right to review the plan. 

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor joined with Justices Micheal P. Donnelly, Melody J. Stewart and Jennifer Brunner to reject the newest maps, finding that they fail to conform to provisions in the state Constitution to reduce gerrymandering. The court found that the maps do not proportionally match with voter preferences throughout the state, favoring Republican candidates. 

On Jan. 12, the courts rejected earlier versions of the maps for similar reasons. Those maps favored Republican candidates in about 62 of the 99 districts for the Ohio House and 23 of 33 seats in the Senate. The newest maps gave Republicans less of an advantage, with 57 seats in the House and 20 in the Senate. 

Proportionally, 54% of General Assembly districts favor Republican candidates while 46% favor Democrats. The court ordered the Commission to find maps that correspond to those proportions. 

“The revised plan does not attempt to closely correspond to that constitutionally defined ration,” the opinion states. “Our instruction to the commission is — simply — to comply with the Constitution.” 

The decision objected to the way the Republicans on the committee revised the map. The Republicans on the commission claimed that it was impossible to give Republican candidates the advantage in less than 57 House races without violating other criteria. 

The Court rejected that conclusion, noting those objecting to the new maps submitted their own proposed maps that closely adhered to the statewide voting preferences. The court noted one expert that submitted 5,000 different plans that were more proportional than the maps approved by the commission. 

“It is also clear that the commission rejected, without explanation, easy and obvious changes that would have made the revised map more proportional,” the opinion stated. 

Ohio House Minority Leader Allison Russo, one of two Democrats on the Ohio Redistricting Commission, pointed out that under the proposed maps, 14 of the 42 House districts determined to be Democratic leaning had a "Democratic index" between 50% and 52%, with 12 of these between 50% and 51%. None of the districts that leaned Republican fell below 52%. 

The court made clear its issues with this approach. “The commission’s adoption of a plan that absurdly labels what are by any definition “competitive” or “toss-up” districts as “Democratic-leaning” — at least when the plan contains no proportional share of similar “Republican-leaning” districts — is demonstrative of an intent to favor the Republican Party,” the opinion states.

“Bluntly, the commission’s labeling of a district with a Democratic vote share between 50 and 51 percent (in one case, a district having a 50.03 percent vote share) as 'Democratic-leaning' is absurd on its face,” it added. 

The court concluded that “the Republican map drawers refused to expressly work toward a 54 to 46 percent partisan share. Yet that is not a 'superficial ratio,' a 'Democratic ratio,' or an 'arbitrary percentage,' as one commissioner cavalierly dismissed it. Rather, as we made clear [in the January ruling] it is a foundational ratio created not by this court or by any particular political party but instead etched by the voters of Ohio into our Constitution.”

In a joint dissent, Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and R. Patrick DeWine wrote that the majority of the Ohio Supreme Court had taken over the redistricting process, claiming the majority is exceeding the bounds of its authority. “At this point, one must wonder which seven-member body is the true redistricting commission — the constitutionally named officers or this court?” the dissent stated.

The dissent adds that the only way for the maps to meet the exact proportionality stated by the majority opinion would be for the commission to gerrymander the urban areas, which would ensure Democratic representatives in the areas, “taking general-election voters out of the equation and ensuring that elections are decided by the lines that are drawn and not by the ballots cast.”

In a separate dissent, Justice Patrick F. Fischer stated that the court had limited oversight over the process because the maps are only approved for four years due to an impasse between the two parties. 

“A four-year plan does not constitutionally come before this court, because there are no Section 9 exceptions in the Constitution’s text, as Article XI was designed to keep this court out of a four-year-plan dispute,” he wrote.

“It’s time for the Ohio Redistricting Commission to finally do their job: make maps that serve the people of Ohio rather than their own short sighted political interests," said Jen Miller of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. 

The deadline to declare candidacy has come and gone, with the majority opinion noting that the legislature created election dates and deadlines, and it has the authority to move the May 3 primary election. The opinion also notes that the commission’s inability to adopt a redistricting plan that met constitutional requirements placed pressure on the Ohio Secretary of State as well as the various county boards of elections throughout the state. 

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