by J.D. Davidson
Calling Ohio’s new state legislative district maps a flagrant violation of the Ohio Constitution and extreme partisan gerrymandering, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit challenging maps it says give Republicans an unfair advantage.
The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Ohio, the ACLU and Burling LLP, was brought on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the Ohio chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and several individuals.
Thursday’s lawsuit was filed a little more than a week after the Ohio Redistricting Commission approved four-year maps on a straight party-line 5-2 vote, with the commission’s two Democrats voting against the new districts.
The ACLU claims the commission disrespected the letter and spirit of voter approved constitutional changes passed in 2015. Under those changes, the Ohio Supreme Court has jurisdiction over legal disputes over the maps.
“If you want a clear lesson in partisan gerrymandering, this is it,” said Alora Thomas-Lundborg, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “This is a brazen abuse of power by the political party that is in control. Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse. Redistricting should not be a one-sided, rigged political process. Voters should pick their politicians. Politicians should not pick their voters.”
John Fortney, director of communications for the Ohio Senate Republican Caucus, said he expects the maps to stand up to the lawsuit.
“We are confident the maps approved by the Redistricting Commission are constitutional and compliant,” Fortney said.
House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron, one of the two Democrats to vote against the maps, said a lawsuit would not have been necessary if Republicans would have worked with Democrats.
“Ohioans and Democrats alike wanted to see the Commission work together on a map that met the constitutional requirement for proportionality and lives up to the reforms voters passed in 2015,” Sykes said. “Republican members of the Commission decided the will of the people was not important to them and instead passed a partisan four-year map. Now the issue is in the hands of the courts. We didn’t have to be here.”
Previously, lawmakers drew maps every 10 years after the release of new census data, but Ohio voters established the commission, which includes the governor, secretary of state, state auditor, two members of the House and two members of the Senate.
If the commission unanimously passes maps, they are good for 10 years. If they pass with only a majority, they last for four years before being redrawn. The maps passed Sept. 15 likely lock-in a Republican veto-proof supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Republicans have received between 46.2% and 59.7% of the statewide vote over the past decade, the lawsuit said. The new enacted map draws 67% of the House districts and 69% of the Senate districts to favor Republicans.
“This extreme partisan gerrymander is a flagrant violation of the Ohio Constitution,” said Freda Levenson, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio. “Several majority members of the Redistricting Commission candidly admitted as much, even as they voted to enact this manipulative scheme. The blatant defiance of the reforms that were overwhelmingly passed by Ohio voters just six years ago is not only a violation of law, but is also a slap in the face to the people of this state. We are going to this state’s highest court to ensure that Ohio voters are able to have a voice in their government.”
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J.D. Davidson is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience in newspapers in Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and Texas. He has served as a reporter, editor, managing editor and publisher. He is regional editor for The Center Square.