Panel Advances Challenge to Ohio Voting Maps

CINCINNATI (CN) – A three-judge panel on Wednesday declined to throw out a gerrymandering lawsuit against Republican officials in Ohio, finding that a group of Democratic voters established legal standing to bring the challenge.

In May, a coalition of Democratic voters and groups, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, sued Governor John Kasich and other Republican lawmakers in Cincinnati federal court. They urged the court to enjoin a 2011 redistricting statute that the GOP used to redraw maps, arguing it gave an unfair advantage to Republicans at the expense of Democratic voters.

They claimed the new maps guaranteed that Republicans would win 12 congressional districts and Democrats four districts, even as the statewide share of the vote for each party shifted over three congressional elections between 2013 and 2016.

The Supreme Court declined in June to rule on the constitutionality of the partisan redistricting that allegedly favors one political party over another. In two separate cases, Democrats had challenged maps drawn by Republicans in Wisconsin, while Republicans had fought the legality of a Democratic plan to redraw a congressional district in Maryland.

The nation’s highest court vacated a ruling in the Wisconsin case, saying that the lower court must better address on remand whether the voters have standing. Meanwhile, the justices affirmed denial of an injunction in the Maryland case, finding that the plea for immediacy rings hollow when the plaintiffs waited to seek relief six years and three general elections after the 2011 map was adopted.

Saying those Supreme Court rulings helped clarify its legal claims, the ACLU of Ohio filed an amended gerrymandering lawsuit against state officials in June.

The Ohio officials asked a three-judge panel to reject the lawsuit on the basis that the Democratic voters and groups do not have legal standing and are not the appropriate parties to bring gerrymandering allegations.

U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Moore, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, rebuffed the Republican officials in an 18-page order Wednesday and denied their motion to dismiss.

The plaintiffs described in their complaint how Republicans had allegedly “packed” Democratic voters into four districts and “cracked” or scattered other voters over 12 districts, further diminishing their power as a voting bloc.

“They have alleged that the 2011 map deliberately diluted the votes of Democrats, either by packing or cracking them, to such an extent that even though Democrats have won between 39 percent to 47 percent of the statewide vote share in the last three congressional elections, they have only ever won 25 percent of the congressional seats,” Moore wrote.

The panel ruled that the voters and groups had done enough at this stage to demonstrate that they live in the affected districts, or have members who live in those districts, to establish injury under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Election district challenges go before a three-judge panel by default, and appeal petitions go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. U.S. District Judge Timothy Black, a Barack Obama appointee, and George W. Bush appointee Michael Watson joined Moore on the panel.

Neither the ACLU of Ohio nor the Ohio attorney general’s office immediately responded Thursday to requests for comment.

The League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute are suing along with 17 Democratic voters, the Northeast Ohio Young Black Democrats, Ohio State University College Democrats, and Hamilton County Young Democrats.

In May, Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment created to dampen partisan redistricting that favors one party over another. A bipartisan process for drawing congressional districts is scheduled to begin in 2021.

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