Federal lawsuit accuses discrimination in congressional redistricting

By: - December 6, 2021 12:50 am

The Republican majority members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission. Top row from left, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Bottom row from left Ohio Auditor Keith Faber, House Speaker Bob Cupp, and Senate President Matt Huffman. Official photos.

Two Youngstown residents are accusing redistricting leaders of ignoring federal precedent and discriminating against Black voters in their new district maps.

The Rev. Kenneth L. Simon and Helen Youngblood, both registered voters from Youngstown, filed a lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court saying the new congressional and legislative district maps need to be rejected and redrawn.

Simon and Youngblood, who are both Black, are challenging the maps because of historical findings of “persistent racial bloc voting and intentional racial discrimination in Mahoning County,” alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act and the findings of a previous federal case which the two claim the most recent redistricting map leaders “deliberately chose to disregard.”

The GOP congressional map signed by Gov. Mike DeWine.

“The Voting Rights Act and constitutional violations complained of herein were not innocent mistakes,” the lawsuit states.

Specifically, Simon and Youngblood accused the Ohio Redistricting Commission and state leaders of violating Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits voting qualifications which result in “denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

The section also says a violation is present if it can be proven that “political processes” that led to a candidate nomination or election “are not equally open to participation by members of a class of citizens … in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”

Youngblood and Simon further their argument that the most recent redistricting effort was done without regard for minority communities using quotes from a public hearing in September in which GOP mapmaker Ray DiRossi told the Ohio Redistricting Commission that “legislative leaders” directed him not to look at racial data in forming the Ohio House and Senate districts.

“This testimony is clear evidence that the legislative leadership in Ohio, intentionally disregarded whether the proposed districts diluted Black voting strength or the existence among other things, of racial block voting or any of the other Senate Report factors,” Simon and Youngblood state in the lawsuit.

Senate President Matt Huffman and state Sen. Rob McColley confirmed and defended their choice not to include racial data in the congressional redistricting map, saying federal law precluded them from using the data without specific evidence of discrimination.

The Republican majority’s four-year Ohio House map.

The recent federal lawsuit cites the case of Armour et. al. v. State of Ohio, in which Youngstown was found to have “a history of discrimination” in areas such as employment practices, the city school system and sentencing, along with legislative districts that kept Black voters from being able to elect their chosen candidates, according to court documents.

The attorney in that case, Percy Squire, is also the lead on the new lawsuit.

A U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio decided the case in 1991, but it involved the 1988 primary election and House legislative districts drawn in Mahoning County. In that case, like the new case, the lawsuit argued violations of the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.

In the 1991 case, the court found the districts as they were drawn then diluted Black votes. Senior Circuit Judge John Peck said in the ruling the configuration of Ohio House districts deprived Black voters of “the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice in either house district.”

In the new case, Simon and Youngblood say the same compliance to the Voting Rights Act and the 15th Amendment should apply, and the same issues with Black vote dilution will occur again under the new maps, which they claim was not overlooked by redistricting officials.

“Defendants were fully aware of their duties under the VRA and 15th Amendment, but conspired with certain state officials described herein to intentionally violate these duties, the previous ruling of this court in Armour, and the clear language of Section 2 (of the VRA), in favor of racial polarization and social conflict,” the lawsuit states.

The Republican majority’s four-year Ohio Senate map.

The lawsuit names Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman and Auditor Keith Faber all as individual parties in the lawsuit, and also together as part of the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

The ORC as a whole is also named, as well as Attorney General Dave Yost.

Under the proposed congressional plan, the plaintiffs say Mahoning County has been joined with areas to the south “where racial bloc voting abounds.”

“The new district will result in illegal and unconstitutional dilution of the Black vote by impairing the ability of the Black community to elect a United States Congressional representative of choice,” the lawsuit states.

The dilution is happening because of a “submersion of Black voting power” into Columbiana, Carroll, Jefferson, Harrison, Belmont and Washington counties, Simon and Youngblood argue, instead of joining Mahoning County with more “racially diverse” adjacent counties such as Stark, Summit and Cuyahoga.

The lawsuit argues Black residents of Youngstown and Warren are “a sufficiently large and geographically compact population to constitute and influential vote in a congressional district,” as well as being “politically cohesive” as a voting bloc.

But plaintiffs in the case say even if the leaders didn’t intend to be discriminatory, the result of the proposed maps is a “denial or abridgement” of Black voters in Ohio.

“Unfortunately, the evidence here shows the defendants intentionally ignored the VRA and the 15th Amendment duties which has resulted in this discriminatory outcome,” the lawsuit states.

This is the sixth lawsuit related to Ohio redistricting to be filed. On Dec. 8, the Ohio Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on three lawsuits challenging the legislative maps and redistricting process. The congressional maps are facing their own challenges, from the National Redistricting Action Fund and the League of Women Voters of Ohio, which could face the state’s highest court at the end of this month or possibly January.



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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 (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.