The state of Ohio and voting rights groups face off Monday in a Cincinnati courtroom to determine the fate of the 2020 political map.
The long-running dispute prompted a ballot issue last year placing new requirements on the drawing of the state’s congressional boundaries. The issue overwhelmingly passed, but challengers argue Ohio needs new districts in time for the 2020 election, rather than waiting to redraw the lines after the census.
Last month at an Associated Press forum, four of Ohio’s statewide officers—all Republicans—gathered to take questions from reporters. Secretary of State Frank LaRose addressed what he believes should happen with the state’s congressional map.
"The people of Ohio have spoken," LaRose said, "and the chance to draw those new maps will come after the census in 2020, when we do that every 10 years, and that’ll be in 2021. I think that’s the best course of action."
LaRose was one of the driving forces behind what became Issue 1, the successful 2018 ballot initiative that placed requirements on the map-drawing process to avoid gerrymandering and encourage bipartisanship. The measure garnered support on both sides of the aisle, and voters overwhelmingly approved it. Under the amendment, a new congressional map would be drawn in 2021 and take effect for the 2022 election.
But shortly after Issue 1 passed, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Ohio in federal court. Attorney Freda Levenson insists the court should scrap the current map ahead of the 2020 election.
"Ohio has among the most egregiously gerrymandered maps in the country, and of all time," she argues.
Levenson contends the drafters intentionally created a district plan that would ensure 12 safe Republican seats compared to just four Democratic ones.
"Perfect results—not a single seat has changed parties," Levenson says. "The 12 seats that were designated by the map drawers for Republicans have yielded Republican congressmen, and the four for, that were left to Democrats—that were packed with Democrats—predictably yielded Democratic seats."
And that’s in Ohio, an almost evenly-divided state. Republicans, however, usually avoid talk of gerrymandering and chalk up large advantages to geographic anomalies in the map-drawing process.
Levenson argues the current map, which has given Republicans a three-to-one advantage in Congress, is unconstitutional in three ways. The first is familiar: by diluting the voting power of Democrats, she argues the map conflicts with the principle of "one person, one vote."
But the case also contends the map violates First Amendment guarantees to association by burdening one party, and that state officials exceeded their authority to draft boundaries.
Jen Miller from the Ohio League of Women’s Voters says the issue can’t wait.
"This is about the fact that right now Ohioans are going to the ballot to vote under unconstitutional conditions," Miller argues. "And so, if we can bring a more fair map to Ohioans for even just one election, that’s something the league is going to do."
There is some precedent for going back to the drawing board. Just last year, Pennsylvania's high court threw out the congressional map on state constitutional grounds. But attorneys for Ohio argue the LWV and ACLU haven’t presented a standard the court can use to determine when a map is too partisan, and that the groups lack standing in the first place.
LaRose pointed to another problem with revising the congressional map.
"We don’t want to be having mid-decennial redistricting for a variety of reasons," LaRose says. "Namely, it creates confusion among the voters of Ohio."
At the same forum, Attorney General Dave Yost urged restraint while the U.S. Supreme Court weighs cases from Maryland and North Carolina.
"So we are a little bit like Schrodinger’s cat here," Yost said. "We’re existing in a cloud of possibilities without any certainty at the moment."
Even while he looks to the U.S. Supreme Court, Yost has doubts about judges being able to settle the matter.
"I don’t believe that the courts are the place for politics, not Republican politics, not Democrat politics, and this inherently political process is not particularly susceptible to a justice—judicial determination," Yost says.
Ohio’s case is being tried under a unique process. A panel of three federal judges will hear the arguments, and any appeal to their eventual ruling will be immediately certified to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although the 2020 election is more than a year away, time is running short. A new map, if one is ordered, needs to be ready in time for candidates to gather signatures ahead of the primary.
The Secretary of State’s Office says the matter must be settled by September 20.