Dave Yost says he is siding with Ohioans. On Friday, the state attorney general moved quickly to announce that he would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a federal court ruling, issued earlier in the day, ordering state lawmakers to redraw the state’s congressional districts for the 2020 elections. He explained: “Ohioans already voted to reform how we draw our congressional maps.” He added: “This protracted opinion takes that decision out of the hands of the people and is fundamentally a political act that has no basis whatsoever in the Constitution.”
Yost is right about voters expressing overwhelming approval of a new process for redrawing U.S. House districts. What he slips past is they did so in large part due their disgust with the current process that delivered the districts the court finds unconstitutional. The three-judge panel argues essentially that the Republican-engineered districts took the decision out of the hands of the people in a fundamentally political act.
So, if it is about following the lead of voters, there is a stronger case for saying no to an appeal and moving ahead with redrawing the districts, the court giving lawmakers until the middle of June. Why stick with something voters already changed and the judges unanimously and roundly condemn?
The persuasiveness of the court ruling resides in the detail. It recounts how Republicans proceeded to entrench themselves in power, using sophisticated software to crunch election data, lines drawn to maximize the party’s position in a range of scenarios, achieving what the state sees today — Republicans with a virtual lock on 12 of the 16 U.S. House seats.
Consider that in 2018, Republicans won 52 percent of the congressional vote in Ohio yet captured for the fourth consecutive election cycle three-quarters of the districts. A recent Associated Press analysis concluded that without such extreme gerrymandering, Republicans would hold three fewer U.S. House seats.
The court ruling describes the process of packing Democratic voters into four districts and then sprinkling, or cracking, the rest across the remaining districts to ensure favorable Republican outcomes. The result is the 11th District, connecting Cleveland and Akron, the 9th District, the “Snake on the Lake,” running along Lake Erie from the Cleveland area to Toledo, and the 13th District, from Youngstown to Akron.
The ruling also cites the “Franklin County sinkhole,” Democratic voters concentrated in the 3rd District to secure hefty Republican majorities in neighboring districts.
During the two-week trial in March, the judges listened to the testimony of experts and then in their ruling identify a handful of “universal” takeaways. For instance, they find “the Ohio map sacrifices respect for traditional redistricting principles,” and is biased to the “extreme, compared to historical plans across the United States and to other possible configurations that could have been adopted in Ohio.”
Another takeaway concludes the map “minimizes responsiveness and competition, rendering one consistent result no matter the particularities of the election cycle.” The judges declare that “this partisan gerrymander was intentional and effective and that no legitimate justification accounts for its extremity.”
While practically everyone understands that redrawing district lines is a process drenched in politics, it also can go too far, the electoral outcome “predetermined,” as the ruling puts it. In this case, Republicans have burdened unfairly the right of others to advance their political aims, leaving them seemingly no chance at the ballot box. This is the map the state wants to use one more time? It is hard to see a good reason why, given that Ohio voters already have expressed their wish for something better.