Environmental group: Congressional maps bad for environment and democracy

NRAF says redistricting process ‘hijacked’

By: - December 15, 2021 12:40 am

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

An environmental advocacy group says congressional district maps should be rejected because of the impact it could have on efforts to fight climate change and renewable energy in the state.

The Ohio Environmental Council submitted a brief to the Ohio Supreme Court agreeing with points made in lawsuits about the congressional district maps that said the maps violate the constitution by favoring one party over another, but also said the map “perpetuates the need for continued and excess investment in educational efforts regarding Ohio’s democratic institutions.”

“A partisan gerrymander of our congressional district map is a textbook symptom of an unhealthy democracy,” the OEC stated in support of rejecting the congressional maps. “And it ignores the will of Ohio voters.”

The lawsuits, brought by the League of Women Voters of Ohio and a group of Ohio citizens, ask that the court find the congressional map approved in November to be rejected for violating the constitution.

The congressional district map not only hurts democratic representation in Ohio, the council said, but would also impact climate change and rising costs of water and electricity.

“Ohioans are seeing their water bills and energy bills rise every month,” the brief stated. “Ohioans are experiencing extreme weather more and more frequently. Ohioans deserve a congressional delegation who will respond to these needs.”

The OEC cited a poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication that found 63% of Ohio voters want renewable energy development to be “the most important priority for addressing Ohio’s energy needs.”

The council also used a tool called the EJ Screen, developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify communities, typically Black, Indigenous and people of color and often low-income communities, who are overly impacted by environmental changes such as air pollution and wastewater discharge.

By superimposing the district lines for the approved congressional map over the EJ Screen map, the OEC found the congressional map breaks up counties and communities in northeast Ohio not only by partisan means, but also breaks up communities who have similar concerns about environmental harms, thus diluting their political power in the state.

“Akron, Canton and Youngstown are all major communities experiencing particular environmental harms,” the OEC wrote. “All three communities have a Black population above the state average. And all three communities are included in separate districts that include significant swaths of rural Ohio, counties with separate and distinct environmental experiences, such as how they acquire and distribute drinking water.”

Since the council works on long-term environmental protections, it’s concerned about hampered civic engagement under gerrymandered maps, creating an inability to push environmental policies for the state. The OEC said it is “directly harmed by gerrymandering” because politicians will be “insulated” from public input.

“Without representatives properly responsive to voters — because their districts have been designed to enshrine their party’s influence — the job of organizations like the OEC becomes substantially more difficult,” the group wrote in their brief.

The OEC is also part of the independent Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission, who presented their own map proposal during the congressional redistricting process. They say the map developed with the OCRC should be used by the court “as an example of what other maps could have been considered by the General Assembly.”

The OEC’s work is hindered, also, by a map that divides the state “in haphazard ways while diluting votes, especially Democrat votes, for the purpose of maintaining a Republican advantage within Ohio’s Congressional delegation.”

NRAF: Redistricting process ‘hijacked’

Fighting for the Ohio Supreme Court to reject a congressional district map approved in November, the National Redistricting Action Fund accused General Assembly leaders of “hijacking the process” to draw the maps just as challengers said happened in the previous redistricting process.

“The congressional districting process is a bad sequel to that same movie,” attorneys for the NRAF wrote in their brief to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The NRAF, representing Ohio residents in different areas of the state, said after passing “one of the most extreme partisan gerrymanders in American history” in 2011, then absorbing amendments into the Ohio constitution to overhaul the redistricting process, the General Assembly treated those amendments “as a nuisance to be circumvented” and made a map that the NRAF claim is “more partisan than its predecessor.”

“This result is at odds with Ohioans’ political preferences and Ohio’s political geography,” the NRAF stated. “By any measure, the 2021 plan is an extreme partisan outlier.”

But the process was supposed to have certain “fail safes” to protect against gerrymandering, the group told the court. Because map challengers say that process wasn’t followed, therefore it’s up to the supreme court to keep map-drawers accountable by rendering the 2021 map invalid and order it to be redrawn, according to the court brief.

If the court declares the plan invalid, the constitution requires the General Assembly to pass a congressional plan within 30 days of the court’s order, and if they can’t meet the deadline, the Ohio Redistricting Commission comes back into play, also tasked to pass a plan within 30 days.

On Tuesday, attorneys in the lawsuits asked the court to hold oral arguments in the cases. The court gave redistricting leaders until Wednesday to file a response to the request for oral arguments.

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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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