Congressional redistricting map sees first lawsuit, others possible

By: - November 24, 2021 12:50 am

State Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, presents congressional redistricting maps to the House Government Oversight Committee on November 17. (Photo: Susan Tebben, OCJ)

The first of what could be a few lawsuits challenging the Ohio congressional district maps was filed this week on behalf of Ohio voters.

The Ohio Supreme Court has received a lawsuit from the National Redistricting Action Fund, on behalf of 12 Ohioans living in the cities of Trotwood, Cleveland Heights, Oxford, Warren and North Canton, and others.

The GOP congressional map signed by Gov. Mike DeWine.

Law firms out of Seattle, D.C., and Columbus are listed as representatives of the Ohioans in the lawsuit, the first to come after the congressional maps were approved last week along largely party lines. The maps were contained in Senate Bill 258, which was signed by Gov. Mike DeWine on November 20.

The NRAF and the Ohioans argue that Article XIX of the Ohio Constitution — part of the explanation of the redistricting process passed by more than 70% of voters in a 2018 ballot initiative — is “mandatory and unequivocal.”

The constitutional provision says the General Assembly “shall not pass a plan that unduly favors or disfavors a political party or its incumbents” and “shall not unduly split governmental units.”

“The General Assembly and Governor (Mike) DeWine’s disregard for that mandate is equally clear: They enacted a congressional plan under which Democrats can expect to win just three of Ohio’s 15 congressional seats, making the 2021 Congressional Plan even more rigged than its predecessor and an outlier among partisan gerrymanders nationwide,” attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for DeWine said the governor’s office is reviewing the lawsuit, and referred back to DeWine’s comments when he signed the bill into law.

The arguments in the lawsuit mirror some made during hours of testimony on various maps proposed in the process, including the Senate GOP map that ended up being the map approved by the General Assembly.

“The process by which maps were considered was a disgraceful subversion of constitutional reforms designed to ensure meaningful public comment before a congressional districting plan is adopted,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit claims map-drawers “subordinated traditional redistricting criteria, tore communities of interest apart and diluted the voting power of Black Ohioans.”

The Ohio Redistricting Commission is also named as a party in the lawsuit, despite the fact that they went past their Oct. 31 deadline without approving a map or proposing a map to the General Assembly for review.

The lawsuit said the ORC was “intended to serve as a backstop” if the GA failed to pass a map by Sept. 30, and accused House Speaker and ORC co-chair Bob Cupp of ignoring fellow co-chair state Sen. Vernon Sykes’ “entreaties to schedule commission meetings.”

“As a result, for the entirety of October, the commission laid dormant,” attorneys wrote. “No hearings were held, and no maps were considered.”

The commission held one hearing on Oct. 28, in which map presentations were made by public citizens and anti-gerrymandering groups, but no vote was conducted.

According to attorneys in the court challenge, the maps proposed by the GOP in November committee hearings “put the 2011 gerrymander to shame,” and cut communities of interest along with splitting counties, cities and townships.

The lawsuit notes urban areas in southwest and northeast Ohio specifically were split “unnecessarily for the patently transparent purpose of minimizing Democratic voting power — particularly that of Black voters.”

Bill sponsor state Sen. Rob McColley defended splits made in the final map during a presentation to a House committee the day before the map was passed by the full House. When asked specifically about Hamilton County, McColley said generally ““the constitution, in our reading, and I think it’s pretty clear, allows us to split up to five counties twice.”

Ohioans in the lawsuit ask the court to “enforce the constitution’s express prohibitions on partisan gerrymandering and undue subdivision splits by striking down the 2021 Congressional Plan and ordering the General Assembly to enact a plan that complies with Article XIX.”

John Fortney, spokesperson for the Ohio Senate Majority Caucus called the lawsuit “yet another far-left special interest lawsuit lecturing Ohioans about fairness,” referring to the National Redistricting Action Fund, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

“You’ll never find these efforts in Illinois or majority Democrat states,” Fortney said in a statement. “Their hypocrisy is infinite, their arrogance is endless.”

The timeline of the congressional maps was already going to throw a wrench in the filing deadlines and dates for the primary election set for next year, but a court case could cause even more confusion. Senate Bill 258 as passed moves the February deadlines to U.S. House candidate filings back to March, since the bill won’t become effective until after the first deadline of Feb. 2.

The lawsuit asks the court not to allow elections to be held, supervised, administered or certified under the 2021 Congressional Plan.

More lawsuits could be in the works, just as multiple challenges were filed against the legislative district maps, passed by the ORC in September.

Oral arguments in the three cases brought by the League of Women Voters, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative and a group of Ohioans set to begin on December 8.

As of Tuesday, no other lawsuits had been made public. The ACLU of Ohio, which is a part of the lawsuit filed with the League of Women Voters, said it is “still analyzing the map and determining the best course of action.”

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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