Ohio Speaker Cupp gets nationally controversial, GOP-aligned mapmaker into redraw process
National bestselling author on gerrymandering goes over new Ohio mapmaker Doug Johnson’s record
A three-judge panel in North Carolina threw out expert testimony from Doug Johnson, a witness for the legislative defendants in North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering trial. (Photo by Melissa Boughton, NC Policy Watch).
When Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp proposed Doug Johnson as an “independent mapmaker” to help draw the state’s new court-ordered congressional map, he described him as an long-time veteran who has worked on hundreds of maps and served as an expert witness in redistricting legislation.
That barely begins to tell the story.
Johnson is among the nation’s most controversial and GOP-aligned mapmakers. The work of his firm, the National Demographics Corporation (NDC), has been accused of protecting incumbents at the expense of minority communities. His expert testimony has been dismissed as “troubling” and “not credible,” with another critical report struck by a North Carolina court for being sloppy and wrong. The city council map his company helped prepare in Martinez, California, was lambasted by a superior court judge and compared to the original 1812 Massachusetts gerrymander that gave the insidious practice its name.
“Bluntly, the map verges on self-parody,” said Judge Charles Treat. The judge later added that “it’s about as uncompact and barely contiguous as geographically possible.”
A 4-3 majority on Ohio’s state supreme court has steadfastly protected anti-gerrymandering, partisan fairness provisions added to the state constitution overwhelmingly by voters in 2018. The Republicans who control the redistricting commission, however, have looked to maintain control — which is often why some elected officials turn to Johnson and his firm, National Demographics Corporation.
The maps in Martinez, California are one example. City councilors there had a problem. They wanted to keep their seats. But the state’s Voting Rights Act effectively required Martinez to scrap its discriminatory system of at-large elections and replace it with districts in order to give growing Latino populations a fairer shot at representation.
The politicians knew where to turn. NDC had a reputation inside many California political circles for drawing maps that kept incumbents in power by, many critics allege, strategic slicing and dicing of minority communities. (Johnson and NDC have denied this and called the criticism misleading.) Indeed, NDC came through for the Martinez councilors: The map – the one the judge accused of “self-parody” – managed to create separate districts for two incumbents who lived on the same block, while diluting the Latino vote across all four districts.
Similar criticisms have been leveled against NDC maps in Selma, Calif., as well in the New Jerusalem school district, where the firm’s map divided an exclusive river club three ways to the benefit of white incumbents. This map even required cutting across an interstate highway just to grab a single home. The district’s deputy superintendent was later hired by NDC.
NDC’s maps have also been controversial in Arizona. Maps that NDC helped produce in 2001 were originally rejected by George W. Bush’s Department of Justice under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department found that while the state’s redistricting commission claimed minority voters could elect candidates of their choosing in 10 state legislative districts, they actually met the burden of proof in only half of those.
When a GOP-dominated commission hired NDC to again draw Arizona’s maps last fall, a frustrated Democratic commissioner from the 2001 cycle said “I don’t know how they could possibly select him after everything that happened here.” The commissioner, Andi Minkoff, added that, “The fix was in with our maps. NDC manipulated them. They manipulated me. They’re bad guys. Doug is a Republican mapmaker and demographer. It is a real problem.”
And while Cupp touted Johnson’s work as an expert witness, Johnson has had some of his most embarrassing moments in court.
When Republican lawmakers in North Carolina needed an expert to testify on behalf of their latest set of challenged maps — which had been drawn by disgraced GOP mastermind Thomas Hofeller — the lawyers and legislators turned to Johnson. Johnson and Hofeller shared longtime ties with the conservative Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College. The 2019 case did not go well for the GOP, which saw its advantageous congressional and state legislative maps thrown out as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. Things went worse for Johnson.
Johnson offered expert testimony on an important question: Whether Hofeller secretly drew the North Carolina maps before the public mapping process began. After Hofeller’s death in 2018, his private files were discovered by his daughter. Those records suggested he had done much work in advance, and revealed maps that had been almost completed by June 2017. That’s prior to his contract with the state, a month before the legislative committee tasked with the job held its first meeting, and two months before lawmakers finalized criteria.
Johnson, however, testified that the Hofeller maps were dramatically different from the ones lawmakers adopted. That analysis was found to be sloppy, misleading — and wrong. What happened? His mistake was at once convenient and confounding. Johnson reached this conclusion by simply omitting 11 districts that showed 100 percent overlap with Hofeller’s lines. When confronted with this failure during cross-examination, Johnson conceded the series of errors and made the excuse that he must have been tired. The three-judge panel in North Carolina did not let him off the hook that easily. They struck all of Johnson’s related testimony and those sections from his expert report. Then, in the court’s final decision, they issued another rebuke.
The court wrote that Johnson’s “speculation does not withstand minimal scrutiny,” described his testimony as “not credible” and “unpersuasive.” The judges even noted four other cases where Johnson had served as an expert, and that “courts in all four cases had rejected his analysis.” Indeed, in those cases, the court pointed out, Johnson’s expert testimony was called “unreliable and not persuasive,” and his analysis or methodology described as “unsuitable,” “troubling,” “lack[ing] merit” or “inappropriate.” The judges’ conclusion: “This Court joins these other courts in rejecting Dr. Johnson’s methodologies, analyses, and conclusions.”
As Johnson prepares to join Ohio’s mapmaking process, a state supreme court that has fought hard to protect the fairness and integrity of these districts should keep those judgements in mind.
David Daley is the author of the national best-seller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy”
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