Maybe you’re like many Ohioans. Maybe you’ve only kind of paid attention to the Ohio Redistricting Commission’s repeated failed attempts to draw new state and federal electoral maps. You’re vaguely aware this is a thing that’s happening, but other things are also happening, important things like, “Are Aaron Rodgers and Shailene Woodley actually broken up – the heck is going on with those two?” so you haven’t kept your eye on the redistricting ball. If that’s you, this is your chance to catch up.
It all started, like so many things, in 2015. That’s when Ohioans did a thing they rarely do. They voted to do something. They wanted the way state legislature maps were drawn to be fair. In 2018, they voted to change the way congressional districts are drawn, too. The people were fed up. They’d had enough! We want fair representation, they said. It’s time to end gerrymandering, they shouted. Congressional districts should not be drawn in the general shape of a duck, they exclaimed.
The stage was set. A new set of maps would be drawn after the next Census, years into the future, way off in 2021, when probably nothing would be happening historically, and cool heads could meet in the spirit of bipartisanship and forge a fair democratic future for all of Ohio.
Except, no, the pandemic happened, and the nation’s collective freakout led to deeper political fractures and an exponential increase in divisive issues like cancel culture, closed schools, masks, and whether Joe Biden is our president or actually three small Bernie Sanders in a trench coat.
Nobody trusts anybody anymore.
Welp, time to draw us some maps!
Ohio’s legislative maps get redrawn once a decade to reflect the changing population, which remains in perpetual decline because of the continued existence of Florida. The maps are for state government districts and federal government districts. It is widely agreed-upon that Ohio’s maps currently favor Republicans. Republicans deny it, but the critics counter that the current maps were drawn by Republicans, and Republicans win the vast majority of state and federal districts even though only 54% of Ohio voters are Republican, and also, seriously, come on, you guys drew a congressional district in the shape of a waterfowl.
As 2020 ended, Ohioans looked forward with hope. Many of them went online and played with tools that allowed them to draw new congressional districts in the shapes of just representation, and cool spirals. Even the expected loss of a congressional seat – to Florida, the Ohio of the South – failed to dampen spirits. Then in the spring of 2021, it all went off the rails. “Ohio’s redistricting process is in a state of turmoil,” wrote Tyler Buchanan in the Ohio Capital Journal on May 3, 2021. It’s a sentence that could have been written at the beginning of every Ohio Redistricting Commission story ever since.
Crisis I: It’s all the census’s fault
A carefully laid out plan to draw and approve maps was blown to smithereens in early May 2021 when it was announced the census data would not come in on time due to the pandemic. Fortunately for our state’s leaders, the constitutional crisis played to their strengths – arguing with each other. A couple of options were tossed about – putting an amendment on the upcoming August ballot to give voters a say in what to do next, or asking the state Supreme Court for an extension, or just giving up and moving everyone to Florida and completing the inevitable.
At the end of May, it was announced that the state of Ohio and the federal government had reached an agreement to make sure U.S. Census data was released by Aug. 16. With those extra months, our state leaders quietly met and diligently hammered out a fair map to avoid lengthening this crisis — I’m sorry I can’t finish this sentence — it’s a sentence of lies. The ruling party spent the summer trying to give itself the sole power to contest legal challenges to any new legislative maps drawn this year and also refused to release public records related to the highly secretive project of – checks notes – where Congressional districts are located.
Crisis II: What are laws, really?
A group of high-ranking state officials called the Ohio Redistricting Commission is the major player in all this. It consists of seven members – five Republicans plus two Democrats. The commission is tasked with drawing the maps – you can read the details on that here because it’s a lot and I do need to be able to finish this article at some point. On Aug. 12, the Redistricting Commission met and set some goals for itself, namely, to have this whole thing wrapped by Christmas. The Ohio Capital Journal, which has been dutifully following this mess from the jump, reported:
The first deadline to adopt a redistricting plan is September 1 for state legislative districts, and September 30 for Congressional districts. If there is an impasse on the maps, the legislative map deadline can be extended to September 15.
For Congressional district lines, an impasse would result in the commission attempting to adopt a bipartisan plan by October 31. If the commission can’t adopt a plan, the General Assembly gets a shot at it, with a deadline of November 30.
Remember those dates. Because they soon won’t matter.
On Sept. 1, the first big deadline, the Democrats on the commission presented a map to prove to their Republican counterparts that, when given years of advance notice, it is possible to draw a map. When the rest of the commission was asked where their map was, they palmed their foreheads and said, “Oh, geez, right, the maps! We knew we forgot something. We, as a political party, probably left them in the car.”
The commission met again days later, and that is when Ohio Republican leaders presented some state legislature maps that looked pretty darn map-like from across the room but upon closer inspection casually erased one whole Democratic state legislator out of existence. Oops. Democrats, leaning on their core strength as a party, complained loudly.
At a series of public meetings, Ohioans expressed frustration over the GOP-drawn maps, with one keen observer politely pointing out as only us plainspoken Ohioans can that the GOP maps “fail disastrously.” Having listened to the public express similar sentiments throughout the public comment process, the GOP-led commission met again and ignored the feedback it had received from the citizens they claim are the greatest in the country, somehow forgot about the will of the voters in 2015, held their noses, and passed obviously gerrymandered Republican maps 5-2 along party lines. Here are actual quotes from GOP members of the commission voicing their stalwart support for passage:
“I’m casting my ‘yes’ vote with great unease,” Secretary of State Frank LaRose said.
“I’m not judging the bill one way or another, that’s up for a court to do,” Gov. Mike DeWine said.
Like Ted Lasso.
Deadlines for the congressional map were missed. Finally, in mid-November, Republicans presented a congressional map that looked pretty darn map-like from across the room but upon closer inspection gave the state’s Democrats, who comprise 46 percent of all voters, just two House seats – a blue squiggle in Cleveland and a dollop in Columbus. Ominously, the Republican duck morphed into a gun.
As all this was happening there were lawsuits, alternate maps and rallies. Then at some point people noticed that one of the Supreme Court Justices who would be hearing the lawsuits regarding the legality of the efforts of the Redistricting Commission was the son of Gov. DeWine, who is on the Redistricting Commission. Although his son Pat DeWine had recused himself before, including from at least one other case involving his father, the judge didn’t see a conflict of interest this time. His reasoning was that his father, the most powerful elected official in the state and one-seventh of the commission, had only minimal influence over the commission’s decisions. It’s times like these that one is reminded that judges used to be lawyers.
In late November, Mike DeWine, he of minimal influence, signed the Republican congressional statehouse map for Ohio, giving the GOP a substantial advantage once again.
And that’s where this all would have ended if we didn’t live in a nation with a functioning court system.
“Law & Order” sound: Dun-dun!
Crisis III: The kitty is not a lion
Looking back, the fact that the Supreme Court would eventually play into all this now seems inevitable. In fairness, though, many of us were operating under the naive assumption that because voters in 2015 and 2018 asked for a process that produced fair maps, and because the law stipulated that some type of fair map must be created, we all thought some type of fair maps would be approved without a slog through the courts. But, no. The state’s Supreme Court was now on deck to hash this mess out.
Representing the GOP: lawyers who had defended North Carolina against what a federal court called one of the “largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered.”
Representing the Democrats: a bunch of plucky do-gooders in ill-fitting clothes with papers spilling out of their briefcases who knew lines from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Both sides made their case.
Then in mid-January, when the court made its ruling, the unexpected happened: some of Ohio’s elected officials followed the law.
The Ohio Supreme Court sided 4-3 with the challengers of the statehouse redistricting maps, with the court saying new maps must be drawn within 10 days. (Remember that deadline. Because it soon won’t matter.)
The court said the Ohio Redistricting Commission “did not attempt to meet the standards set forth” in the legislative redistricting process of the Ohio Constitution. The court took issue with Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Bob Cupp’s argument to the court that certain parts of the constitution were not lawful but rather “aspirational.” Yes, aspirational. Our constitution was likened to the meme kitty who sees himself as a lion.
Days later, the Ohio Supreme Court pushed back on the Congressional maps as well.
Gov. DeWine vowed to reconvene the Redistricting Commission once again to work on revised maps that were consistent with the court’s order. Candidate filing deadlines for upcoming elections were due in February. Time was of the essence.
Crisis IV: Time was not of the essence
With a May 3 state primary date and a Feb. 22 deadline for the Secretary of State to certify ballots rapidly approaching, everyone agreed it was time to get these maps finished, as long as the other side gave up completely.
In late January, the Ohio Redistricting Commission met again and adopted four-year legislative maps that once again favored the GOP with a 5-2 vote. Anti-gerrymandering groups pointed out – and this is where their anti-gerrymandering expertise comes in – that the maps were still gerrymandered, so they remained anti. In the background, there also was some legal maneuvering that was hard to follow along with but seemed important.
In early February, the Ohio Supreme Court went all Cavs center Evan Mobley and swatted the state’s latest redistricting maps into the third row of the arena of jurisprudent shame. “The (Ohio Redistricting Commission’s) choice to avoid a more proportional plan for no explicable reason points unavoidably toward an intent to favor the Republican Party,” the majority wrote.
The justices ordered the Ohio Redistricting Commission to convene for a third time.
Displaying all the trademark hustle it’s been putting on display since first meeting in August, the Redistricting Commission met again in mid-February and did nothing. This time, though, nothing had potential consequences, as the commission faced possible contempt of court charges. “I don’t think we have the luxury of saying we’re just quitting,” Gov. DeWine said as his fellow Republican commissioners settled on a strategy of just quitting.
The state Supreme Court gave the commission a Feb. 23 deadline to explain why it shouldn’t be held in contempt. This deadline, they did attempt to meet. Avoiding legal peril appears to be the one big motivator with this bunch. The commission reconvened soon after and passed a third round of legislative maps a week after the Ohio Supreme Court’s deadline had passed. Those maps introduced in late February passed with a 4-3 vote, with both Democrats voting against as they always do, but this time they were joined by Auditor Keith Faber, who’s starting to show some of the character arc fans had hoped for earlier in the series.
This all, quite coincidentally, came days before the commission members were told they must appear before the Ohio Supreme Court and answer for missing the deadline of Feb. 17. The court asked for all members to come to a March 1 hearing on the possibility of contempt of court.
And that’s where things stand now. Deadlines repeatedly blown. A May 3 primary now in question. The state’s top elected officials facing contempt of court – from their own family, in one case. It’s all very strange and awkward and troubling, but the Ohio Redistricting Commission appears ready to fulfill its duty at some point in the next couple of years, probably.
With reporting from the Ohio Capital Journal.
Joe Donatelli writes the What Happened Now? newsletter. Subscribe in the box thingy below. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.