Ohio Republicans Are Gaming The System To Push Through Gerrymandered Districts

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 06: Republican candidate Frank LaRose gives his victory speech after winning Ohio Secretary of State on November 6, 2018 at the Ohio Republican Party's election night party at the Sheraton Cap... COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 06: Republican candidate Frank LaRose gives his victory speech after winning Ohio Secretary of State on November 6, 2018 at the Ohio Republican Party's election night party at the Sheraton Capitol Square in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images) MORE LESS

A bipartisan majority on the Ohio Supreme Court has rejected Republican-drawn maps for U.S. congressional districts and state legislative districts a combined four times this year, handing Republicans rejection after rejection on the grounds that their proposed maps are illegally slanted in their own favor. 

And yet, Republicans may end up on top anyway, thanks to a combination of stalling tactics and tricky legal maneuvers.

Early voting in the state’s primaries begins April 5. And amid ongoing legal uncertainty over the maps, Republican legislative leaders in the state, who are also key members of the state’s GOP-dominated redistricting commission, have refused to consider pushing those primaries back.

That, and the threat of federal courts intervening in the fight, have forced Democrats and fair maps advocates into a tense race against time — one they fear they may lose. 

The time pressure is part of Republicans’ “grand strategy to run out the clock” and wind up with gerrymandered maps in their favor, said Richard Gunther, an emeritus professor of political science at The Ohio State University, and one of a small team of people who helped draft an anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment that Ohio voters overwhelmingly supported in 2015.

“They delayed the process and then dragged their feet throughout all of these various maps and the appeals processes, and now they’re coming up against this artificial deadline,” Gunther told TPM, referring to the Republican-dominated redistricting commission and state legislature. “There is nothing in the Ohio constitution that requires a primary in May.” 

‘The Gamble’

The ongoing fight over Ohio’s congressional districts shows how Republicans have used time pressure and procedural maneuvers to squeeze the redistricting process.

That struggle started in earnest in January, when a bipartisan majority of the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the GOP-dominated legislature’s proposed congressional map, which would have delivered Republicans 12 out of 15 likely congressional seats, even though the party has won just over half of statewide elections in recent years. 

And then… nothing. The court’s 30-day deadline came and went without the legislature agreeing to a new map, so the matter went to the GOP-dominated redistricting commission, which finally presented a map on March 2

The second map had similar problems, giving Republicans 10 likely districts to Democrats’ three, and challengers quickly filed motions with the state Supreme Court under the same case they’d used to challenge the first map. But the court rejected the motions, saying instead that the parties would have to file an entirely new lawsuit. Faced with a time crunch, two strategies emerged, with one group of challengers suing to overturn the new maps for this year’s elections, and another group punting and focusing on 2024.

The court didn’t say why it was requiring the challengers to file new lawsuits, but people familiar with the suits speculated to TPM that the court might be concerned about federal courts stepping in and getting involved: After all, a shocking four U.S. Supreme Court justices earlier this month signaled their openness to the so-called “independent state legislature doctrine,” which posits that state legislators, not state courts, should have the final say on all election questions.

The U.S. Supreme Court offered another striking example of federal judicial intervention just this week, ruling that Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court had improperly selected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ (D) proposed state legislative maps and ordering the state court to reconsider the case, a significant and unexpected boon for Republicans.

That move “reaffirmed our concerns,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, which is seeking to have the maps overturned in time for 2024. “What happened in Wisconsin is demonstrative of the gamble that would be taken if the Ohio Supreme Court reopened the congressional process and the federal courts get involved.” 

‘They Have Done Wrong By Ohio Voters’

Ohio Republicans have fared worse with their proposed state legislative maps, which the state Supreme Court has rejected three separate times. After the third rejection — prompting calls from some GOP lawmakers to impeach the court’s Republican chief justice — Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) had no choice but to strip the races from the upcoming primary ballot: County election officials wouldn’t have had enough time to accommodate a fourth map. 

The secretary wasn’t happy about it: In a letter to state lawmakers last week, LaRose took shots at the Biden administration, for what he said was an “intentional” delay of Census data, at the state Supreme Court for its “ever-changing orders,” and at lawsuits over the maps that he said sought to cause “chaos and confusion” in the state — “bankrolled by out of state special interests ultimately seeking court ordered gerrymandering for partisan advantage.” 

But the time crunch wasn’t inevitable. State legislators could have simply delayed the primaries earlier in the process to allow for litigation over the maps to come to its conclusion. But they haven’t. Neither Senate Majority Leader Matt Huffman (R) nor House Speaker Bob Cupp (R) responded to TPM’s request for comment on the matter. 

Both men are members of the state’s Redistricting Commission, which also includes two Democrats as well as Ohio’s Republican governor, auditor, and Secretary LaRose.

“The state legislature and the Ohio Redistricting Commission have done the wrong thing. They have done wrong by voters,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio. “They shouldn’t just be able to drag their feet, and drag their feet, and say, ‘Now, we’re never ever going to change the primary.”

Despite the state Supreme Court’s rejection, Republican activists are fighting in federal court to have the third set of proposed state legislative maps, which the state court called “intentionally biased,” implemented for this year’s elections. Last Friday, LaRose signaled his openness to the maneuver. 

“Given the history of the state legislative redistricting proceedings to date, the Secretary believes that it would be prudent for the federal court to begin proceedings to establish a three-judge panel so that a primary—and ultimately a general—election can be held in the event that the state proceedings ultimately fail,” a filing from the state read.

Within a few hours, LaRose and the Republican activist plaintiffs got their way: The chief judge of the sixth circuit court of appeals appointed the panel of judges to take over the lawsuit.

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