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The Statehouse News Bureau provides educational, comprehensive coverage of legislation, elections, issues and other activities surrounding the Statehouse to Ohio's public radio and television stations.

Ohio Supreme Court hears arguments whether new state legislative maps violate anti-gerrymandering reforms

Ohio Supreme Court courtroom as pictured on Dec. 8, 2021, after session. [Daniel Konik / Statehouse News Bureau]
Ohio Supreme Court courtroom as pictured on Dec. 8, 2021, after session.

The argument over Ohio's new state legislative district maps took center stage in the Ohio Supreme Court Wednesday. The question was whether or not the new Ohio House and Ohio Senate maps violate the anti-gerrymandering reforms passed by voters in 2015.

As Freda Levenson, representing the League of Women Voters of Ohio, stood before the court to argue against the newly drawn maps, she reflected on the court's decision to uphold the maps drawn in 2011.

She says, at the time, the court ruled in favor of the maps because the state lacked constitutional language on how to draw fair districts.

"The court specified the kind of language it would need. 'No apportionment plan shall be drawn with the intent of favoring or disfavoring a political party,'" Levinson said. "Ohio voters listened, and in 2015 voted overwhelmingly in a bipartisan basis to supply this."

The voter approved changes to the Constitution included a section that said maps must reflect a proportional district balance of Ohio voters' political preference.

Based on statewide elections, the state splits about 54% Republican and 46% Democratic.

But the new maps give Republicans a 63% advantage. The Ohio House map creates 62 Republican-favored seats to 37 Democratic-favored seats. The Ohio Senate splits 23 Republican seats to 10 Democratic seats.

Brian Sutherland, also with the group opposing the maps, says this creates other Constitutional violations.

"They can't organize and advocate and effectuate change the way they should," Sutherland said. "It's a right to alter and reform the government for the equal benefit and protection of people. That doesn't happen when people have totally unequal voting power." 

Phillip Strach, representing House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima) and Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) on the Ohio Redistricting Commission, argued the provision saying the maps should reflect the partisan makeup of Ohio did not need to be followed because the commission complied with other sections of the Constitution.

Strach argued the commission showed an attempt to compromise by avoiding a map that would've been even worse for Democrats.

"The commission could have said, 'You know what? We can't cut a deal. We've complied with the anti-gerrymandering requirements. We're going to go back and we're going to adopt that 67 Republican leaning House plan. We're going to do that because we can.' They didn't do that," Strach said.

Another way to look at the state's partisan breakdown, according to mapmakers, would be to consider the number of times a GOP candidate has won a statewide race: 81%. But Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor called that argument into question.

"You put them in the Republican column, and there's no equivalent number or representation of all of the other parties -- Democrat or Democratic leaning independents that voted. There's no accounting for their vote," O'Connor said.

The chief justice, a Republican, is considered to be the possible swing vote on a court that splits 4-3 in favor of Republicans. She dissented against a ruling in favor of the maps created 10 years ago that also led to a Republican supermajority in the statehouse.

The justices will now consider the arguments and there's no telling when they will issue a ruling. If the court rules against the maps, it's likely the Ohio Redistricting Commission will have to redraw the plans.

Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.