Despite voter-approved anti-gerrymandering reforms, Ohio GOP still draws lopsided map

Originally published on November 25, 2021 1:44 pm

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has signed into law a congressional map that creates 15 new districts in the state, but anti-gerrymandering advocates are slamming the map saying it was drawn to keep a Republican stronghold in Ohio.

The plan has 12 seats that either heavily favor or lean in favor of Republicans. That's 80% of the districts in a state that voted for former President Donald Trump with 53% of the vote in 2020.

Voter rights groups say Republican lawmakers went out of their way to carve the map in a way that gives them an advantage.

"It is full of weird shapes and squiggly lines," says Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. "Maps don't look like this unless you're trying to secure a partisan outcome rather than fairly representing voters."

Republicans defended the districts saying that they keep most of Ohio's largest cities whole and split fewer counties than the districts drawn 10 years ago.

There are six districts where the margin between Republican voters and Democratic voters is less than 10%. But of those six districts, five still lean in favor of the GOP.

"I don't think we should go into any map-making process and say, 'Okay, we have to have seven that are guaranteed to be one party and eight guaranteed to be the other party,' " says Republican State Sen. Rob McColley. "I don't think that's what the voters wanted."

2018 Ohio redistricting reforms

State lawmakers created the map under a new process approved by Ohio voters in 2018. The change was part of a movement to reform redistricting and prevent gerrymandering. A provision in the state constitutional amendment says leaders could not draw a map that "unduly favors or disfavors a political party or its incumbents."

Democratic State Rep. Stephanie Howse from Cleveland chided Republicans in a heated floor debate, saying this map ignores the will of the voters.

"That is not what people voted for in May of 2018. They deserve better. We need to do better. And we need to absolutely vote this mess down," Howse said.

In the same debate, Republican state Rep. Bill Seitz from Cincinnati said Ohio has been trending red and that elections depend on any given candidate.

" 'Fair', ladies and gentlemen, is in the eyes of the beholder," Seitz said. "We have followed the Constitution. We have done our duty. We have listened to the people. Listening to them does not mean agreeing with them."

We have listened to the people. Listening to them does not mean agreeing with them. - Ohio Republican state Rep. Bill Seitz

The result of the new map could have national implications. It takes a state that previously had 12 Republican and four Democratic delegates and potentially tips the scales of power in the U.S. House of Representatives by eliminating two safe Democratic seats and creating a possible 13th district that's winnable for the GOP.

Ohio has become the latest state to finalize a new map. Democrats in states such as Illinois and Maryland have been criticized for proposing maps that favor their party. But the new maps around the country have, so far, resulted in more safe districts for Republicans.

Since the Ohio map did not get bipartisan support from Democrats, it will only be in place for four years, instead of the regular 10-year span, another provision of the 2018 redistricting reforms.

And advocates say they're not going down without a fight.

"This map is unconstitutional because it slices and dices communities purely to unduly favor one political party," says Miller.

The National Redistricting Action Fund, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, filed a challenge in the Ohio Supreme Court saying the new map violates the state Constitution.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

States around the country are in the process of creating new congressional district maps. Some are drawn by citizen commissions. Others are crafted by elected officials. Ohio's new congressional map was drawn by Republican lawmakers, and the result is drawing accusations of gerrymandering. Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow reports.

ANDY CHOW, BYLINE: Voter rights advocates are standing in a statehouse committee room huddled around an easel holding a large printout of Ohio's new congressional district map.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There's no reason for Hamilton County to be split into three districts.

CHOW: They're examining the different splits and unique curves that divvy up the state and what will become 15 new congressional seats.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Like, here's like a little bunny rabbit, you know, that's going forward.

CHOW: Jen Miller with the League of Women Voters of Ohio says the map was drawn by Republicans for Republicans.

JEN MILLER: Maps don't look like this unless you're trying to secure a partisan outcome rather than fairly representing voters.

CHOW: Ohio's new congressional map has 12 seats that either heavily favor or lean in favor of Republicans. That's 80% of the districts in a state that voted for Republican Donald Trump with 53% of the vote in 2020. There are six districts where the margin between Republican voters and Democratic voters is less than 10%. But of those six districts, five still lean in favor of the GOP. Republican State Senator Rob McColley says their map is actually an improvement on the old one because it creates more competitive districts.

ROB MCCOLLEY: I don't think we should go into any mapmaking process and say, OK, we have to have seven that are guaranteed to be one party and eight guaranteed to be the other party. I don't think that's what the voters wanted.

CHOW: Republicans also say the map keeps most of Ohio's largest cities whole and splits fewer counties. But in a heated floor debate, Ohio House Democrats, such as Representative Stephanie Howse, chided state Republicans, saying this map ignores the anti-gerrymandering reforms passed by voters three years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHANIE HOWSE: So let's be for real. Like, that is not what people voted for on May in 2018. They deserve better. We need to do better. And we need to absolutely vote this mess down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL SEITZ: Fair, ladies and gentlemen, is in the eyes of the beholder.

CHOW: But Republican Representative Bill Seitz says Ohio has been trending red and that elections depend on any given candidate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEITZ: We have followed the Constitution. We have done our duty. We have listened to the people. Listening to them does not mean agreeing with them.

CHOW: The new map potentially tips the scales of power in the U.S. House of Representatives by eliminating two safe Democratic seats and creating a possible 13th district that's winnable for the GOP. Ohio has become the latest state to finalize a new map. Democrats in states such as Illinois and Maryland have been criticized for drawing maps that favor their party. But the new maps around the country have so far resulted in more safe districts for Republicans. The League of Women Voters' Jen Miller says they're not going down without a fight.

MILLER: This map is unconstitutional because it slices and dices communities purely to unduly favor one political party.

CHOW: A national Democratic group has already filed a lawsuit against the map in the Ohio Supreme Court, with other organizations planning to follow. For NPR News, I'm Andy Chow in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF YEAH YEAH YEAHS SONG, "MAPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.