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Ohio's new legislative maps under fire, likely to go in front of the Ohio Supreme Court

Ohio’s newest legislative districts are already coming under fire from critics on both sides of the aisle. (WKRC)
Ohio’s newest legislative districts are already coming under fire from critics on both sides of the aisle. (WKRC)
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CINCINNATI (WKRC) - Ohio’s newest legislative districts are already coming under fire from critics on both sides of the aisle.

University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven studies gerrymandering.

"The phrase gerrymandering is hundreds of years old. We didn't invent it in Ohio; we just perfected it," Niven said.

He stayed up late Wednesday night to see if the Ohio Redistricting Commission would be able to approve a new legislative map before the mandated deadline. It did, but the map passed along party lines in the commission, 5-2 Republicans.

The commission consists of four representatives picked by the majority and minority leaders in each house, along with Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Auditor Keith Faber, all of whom are Republicans.

"[Republicans] can actually win a strong majority in the legislature without actually getting a majority of the votes," Niven said.

League of Women Voters of Ohio Executive Director Jen Miller says they are very disappointed in the results.

"These are not good maps, and the process was chaotic, rushed, frustrating. Ultimately, I do not think the maps, nor the process, are upholding the reforms that voters overwhelmingly passed in 2015 for transparency and bipartisanship and putting an end to partisan gerrymandering," Miller said. "That hurts everybody when maps are rigged. Lawmakers don't have to listen to us. Political parties don't have to listen to us.”

The nonpartisan League of Women Voters has been around for a century. The organization does not endorse parties or candidates. It provides information for voters.

"Bottom line, the League of Women Voters has been fighting for fair maps for the people, so maps that are not rigged for individual candidates or political parties for a very long time, since the 1970s. We have fought Democrats when they were the ones rigging the maps and now today that the maps are rigged for Republicans because every voter is hurt when politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around," Miller said.

Miller is not the only one. DeWine and LaRose say they are not happy with the map or the process, but both voted yes to the new gerrymandered map.

“What we saw with the redistricting commission is they did their work in secret. You couldn't watch this process go forward. They retreated from public hearing rooms to draw these lines, and, actually, members of the commission, including Republicans, suggested at the meeting [Wednesday] night that they were shut out of the process, that they weren't allowed to participate in that drawing, which really defeats the idea of the reforms,” Niven said.

Local 12 asked the governor’s office about the “yes” vote despite opposing the maps. A spokesman sent the following statement:

"The Governor has expressed his disappointment that no path remained possible for a ten-year, bipartisan map. That being said, a constitutional deadline remained to pass a map, and the Commission had a responsibility to meet that obligation, especially with no alternative paths to a ten-year map even if the deadline was missed."

Local 12 called and emailed LaRose's office, but no one has returned the request as of this writing.

The maps will be challenged in court. Ohio has a fairness standard that must be met for redistricting after voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2015. New maps must give seats proportionally to how people voted over the past 10 years.

“[The amendment] heightens the scrutiny that the state supreme court uses to examine whether this map is fair. So, before we even talk about this map going into effect, it's a question of whether it will survive a state supreme court that's going to be asked, 'Is this map fair?' Does it follow the constitution? And the constitution says that the district should be drawn in proportion to the party's popularity in the last elections of the last 10 years," Niven said. “The 10-year average gives Republicans about 54% of the vote, gives Democrats about 46%, and so, the constitution contemplates drawing districts that would roughly put the parties in that situation. And what these new districts do is ensure that the Republicans are at least in the 60, mid-60s in the percentage of the seats they get, even if that's not anywhere near the percentage of votes that they're achieving."

The Ohio Supreme Court is split in favor of Republicans.

“It has been since 1987. However, it's a 4-3 split and the chief justice [Maureen O'Connor], not entirely unlike the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, is something of the holder of the middle seat. So, I think there's a reasonable expectation that the chief justice, though she's a Republican, is a public-spirited Republican who is not simply going to rubberstamp this map. So, you know, ultimately the bottom line is whether this map is constitutional or not depends on whether the state chief justice thinks it's constitutional," Niven said.

Next up is the U.S. Congressional district map. The Legislature will begin working on it. If it is not able to reach a bipartisan agreement, the redistricting commission will take over.

Niven says Ohio’s map was one of the most gerrymandered in the country.

“The Ohio congressional map is an extraordinary document. It retires undefeated over 10 years. Not a single seat changed hands from Democrats to Republicans. It didn't matter the election, didn't matter whether it was a presidential year, good year for Democrats, good year for Republicans. The exact same outcome year after year. So, that's an extraordinary example of gerrymandering," Niven said. “You think of all the people who cast ballots, all the people who volunteer, knocked on doors, tried to help a candidate out, and, in a decade -- 80 different elections -- not a single seat changed hands. So, you know, that's one of the aspects of gerrymandering that is really politically dangerous, that it discounts the value of an awful lot of political participation.”

"Even when Obama won the state, it was 12-4 [Congressional seats]: 12 Republicans, four Democrats. When Trump won, it was 12 Republicans, four Democrats. The vote statewide are about 55% Republican, but we're seeing that 75% of this are going that way and no matter how voter preference is changed, the map is rigged," Miller said.

Ohio lost a congressional seat in the latest Census data. So, no matter what, the map must change.

“For the first time ever, there will be standards that limit the splitting of counties. So, there are a lot of places, including Hamilton County, that are split in ways that will not be permitted in the future. So, for example, the city of Cincinnati will have to be kept entirely in one district instead of the zigzag line that cuts through it right now. That, by itself, even if nothing else changes, that represents a major change because it allows cities to get coherent representation instead of having them literally block by block divided from each other," Niven said.

Fair election advocates worry a similarly gerrymandered map will be created as well.

"If our voices didn't matter, politicians wouldn't work to rig the system to begin with. The fact that voting is so powerful is why we see political parties on both sides of the aisle use mapmaking to try to manipulate the outcomes in the long run. So, the answer is not to bury our heads in the sand. The answer is to lean in and make sure that democracy works for us. It's hard work, but we all need to work together as the people of Ohio to right this,” Miller said.

Niven says Ohio has a very extreme legislature in terms of the policies its members support.

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“We don't actually have a very extreme electorate, and so, you know, we get the kind of governing we get not based on the votes we cast, but based on the maps we live under, and so, that's why this issue is so important,” Niven said.

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