The ACLU of Ohio’s closely watched court case challenging the state’s heavily gerrymandered congressional map wrapped up on Wednesday. Now, a decision that could lead to new fair maps for the 2020 election rests with three federal judges.

While it’s unknown when the court will rule, sooner than later is a pretty good guess, since candidates will quickly need to know which districts and voters are theirs.

In May 2018, Ohioans overwhelmingly approved Issue 1 to ensure a fairer map-making process by 2022. The ACLU case asks for fairer map-making standards, and in time for the next election.

The stakes are high. Dozens of lawyers representing both sides, along with interested spectators, filled a Cincinnati courtroom over the past two weeks.

Plaintiffs from all of Ohio’s 16 U.S. House districts and other impacted parties testified to how the awkward, even humorous, current map is fulfilling its contemptible purpose — to ensure that Republicans will consistently win 12 seats, no matter what election-year momentum exists for either party.

"That's why Congress is in such a mess," testified U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Toledo Democrat, on the trial’s final day. "[Gerrymandering] has hurt America."

During eight days of testimony, political scientists and statisticians presented overwhelming evidence of enduring political bias in Ohio. Among gerrymandered states, Ohio is the granddaddy of them all, they said.

While Republicans won just north of 50 percent of the collective congressional votes during the past four elections, the GOP has consistently won 75 percent of the seats. That’s no accident.

One expert witness, Dr. Wendy Cho, testified that, using sophisticated algorithms, millions of potential mapping scenarios have been drawn for Ohio, but not one comes close to the way districts are currently configured.

It’s not just the laughable shapes of districts that reveal gerrymandering; the proof is in statistical data that show how maps are configured to achieve maximum advantage.

The GOP’s intent to cheat was also on trial. When the current maps were drawn in 2011, Republican leaders rented eight Columbus hotel rooms, which they called “the bunker,” where precision map-drawers went to work, without public transparency or minority party participation, to accomplish their dastardly deed.

Gerrymandering is accomplished in two ways: “packing” and “cracking.”

First, you “pack” as many members of the minority party into the fewest number of districts. In Ohio’s case, that’s Democrats — who comprise nearly half of the state’s population — squeezed into four districts.

Second, you “crack” the remaining population to ensure that one party remains sufficiently weak in the majority-controlled districts. Again, in Ohio, that means Democrats are carved up and sprinkled proportionally in the remaining 12 districts.

There’s no better example than Summit County, which is dissected into four districts, with none of the four current representatives residing there. Ironic, since Summit County alone has almost enough residents to be its own U.S. House district.

Even the University of Akron is divided up so that one-half of the campus votes in the 13th District, alongside students who go to Youngstown State University, and the other half of campus votes in the 11th District, alongside students who attend Cleveland State University. One would think the UA community would have shared concerns that would warrant participating in the election of a single shared member of Congress.

Ohio’s current map purposefully divides 23 counties and 73 municipalities, like Summit County and Akron are. That’s absurd. Every intent should be made to honor existing geographical and political boundaries.

Our proposed remedial map splits just 14 counties and 27 cities or townships, and it better complies with the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees that minority voters have a chance for their shared concerns to be voiced and their votes meaningfully cast.

To be clear, while Ohio and other states are gerrymandered in favor of Republicans, other states are mapped to favor Democrats. The ACLU’s position is that it’s wrong either way, because it robs voters of meaningful participation in the political process.

Two cases currently before the U.S. Supreme Court — one from North Carolina, the other from Maryland — demonstrate that gerrymandering is not a Republican or Democratic issue; it’s a pervasive problem that disenfranchises all voters from the political process. In Ohio, that’s the case in all 16 districts.

There’s nothing more fundamental to democracy than fair elections. Voters should choose their elected representatives, and not the other way around. That’s why the ACLU spent years preparing for this trial, and why we will ultimately prevail.

 

Guess is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.