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Politics
Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Commentary: GOP Legislative Map Is 'More Of The Same' Just With 'Shapes Not Seen In Nature'

David Niven, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, holds a map depicting a gerrymandered Ohio district.
John Minchillo
/
AP
In this photo from 2019, David Niven, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, holds a map that demonstrates a gerrymandered Ohio district.

Republicans in the Statehouse have known since November 2015 that, this time, the rules for drawing new Ohio House and Senate district lines would be different.

In November 2015, 71% of Ohioans who went to the polls voted for Issue 1, a constitutional amendment aimed at taking much of the partisan gamesmanship out of the legislative map-making process. It set rules for both political parties that were supposed to make the partisan make-up of the Ohio General Assembly more closely match the actual partisan voting patterns.

And, now, it has become clear that the five Republican members of the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission simply ignored the rules now written into the state constitution and produced a map – in secret, of course – that, if it prevails, would just serve to solidify their super-majority status in the legislature for the rest of this decade.

"This map is almost the very definition of gerrymandering,'' said David Niven, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati who has been working with the Fair Districts Coalition to hold legislators feet to the fire when it comes to following the law.

What the GOP has produced, Niven said, "is another map full of shapes not seen in nature."

And it is not as if the language in the state constitution is not clear. Here's what Article XI, Section 6 (A) (B) says, in plain English:

  • (A) No general assembly district plan shall be drawn primarily to favor or disfavor a political party.
  • (B) The statewide proportion of districts whose voters, based on statewide state and federal partisan general election results during the last 10 years, favor each political party shall correspond closely to the statewide preferences of the voters of Ohio.

Simple as that.

But the GOP majority has concocted maps that follow neither rule.

'I Knew This Would Happen'

Perhaps the best example of how Ohio House Republicans are willing to ignore the law and use the redistricting of House and Senate seats to solidify their control over the Statehouse and punish their "enemies" is in Hamilton County, in the person of State Rep. Jessica Miranda, a Forest Park Democrat.

jessica miranda
Courtesy of Jessica Miranda

The fact that Miranda, now a well-respected member of the minority Democratic caucus, is even a state representative has stuck in the craw of the Republican leadership in Columbus and Hamilton County ever since she unseated Republican incumbent Jonathan Dever by a scant 56 votes in 2018.

Then, in 2020, she came back to defeat former Hamilton County commissioner Chris Monzel by more than 2,300 votes in a district that stretches across the northern suburbs of Hamilton County. It is one of the few truly competitive House districts in the state.

The GOP has resented the fact that this district was taken away from them in 2018 by an upstart Democrat who has gone on to become a force to be reckoned with.

So, what did the Republican mapmakers do to exact revenge?

They drew Miranda out of her own district, the 28th, lumping Forest Park – where about 60% of the population is Black – into a lily white western Hamilton County District represented by Republican Cindy Abrams that stretches across Colerain, Whitewater and Harrison townships all the way to the Indiana border.

"I knew this would happen, because I knew the Republicans would rig the system and cheat to get this seat back," Miranda said.

The GOP mapmakers did the same thing 10 years ago to then-State Rep. Denise Driehaus, drawing her out of the west side district. Driehaus, now a county commissioner, was able to move to the east side and run in a new district and win.

For Miranda, though, it is not that simple.

"Forest Park is where I own my home, where I own my own business,'' Miranda said. "I have three young children. I can't just uproot my family and move."

If this GOP map sticks, she would be forced to run against Abrams in a heavily Republican district where the Democratic vote – a largely Black vote – is diluted and would have no chance of pulling her through to another term. That's a decision she will have to make soon, Miranda said.

The irony is that Miranda has a very good understanding of the 28th Ohio House District and knows that she has had to reach out to Republican voters to keep her in office in a competitive district. That's why she has a reputation as a Statehouse Democrat willing to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans on some legislation.

A lot of good that has done her.

"No matter how hard you try to work with the Republicans in the legislature, it doesn’t matter,'' Miranda said. "They will still try to screw you in the end."

The 'Packing' And 'Cracking' Strategy

The GOP mapmakers, no doubt, believe they have killed two birds with one stone in the 28th Ohio House District – putting a Democratic state representative on the ropes and diluting the heavily Democratic Black vote in a city of over 20,000 people. All in a day's work.

Brandi Slaughter, executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches, said diluting the Black vote seems to be what the GOP district plan is all about.

In some cases, she said, it is "packing" – the practice of confining Black voters to their own districts, limiting the number of seats Blacks can win. In others, Slaughter said, it is the practice of "cracking" – spreading out the Black vote so that its impact is limited, as is the case in the 28th Ohio House District map.

"Both practices - cracking and packing - dilute minority representation,'' Slaughter said. "It is just more of the same from the Republicans. In fact, this map is even worse."

Since releasing their version of the maps last week, the two legislative leaders on the Ohio Redistricting Commission – House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman, both of Lima - have made some arguments that opponents say are disingenuous or simply untrue.

matt huffman
Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman in June 2021.

Cupp and Huffman told Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow that they didn't analyze how the districts the Republicans drew matched up with the statewide voting results.

That's rather hard to swallow. The statewide election results show that 54% of Ohio voters have voted for Republican candidates, compared to 46% for Democrats. An independent analysis of the Republican-drawn maps suggests that 67 of the 99 Ohio House seats could be held by Republicans, while 25 of the 33 Senate seats would go to the GOP.

The current partisan make-up of the House and Senate is 64 Republicans in the House and 25 in the Senate. Nowhere near the 54-46 split in the state's voting.

Huffman said, too, that racial makeup of the districts wasn't taken into consideration.

"It's illegal to use race in drawing districts," Huffman said. "That would be a violation of federal law."

Critics of the plan say that race can be a factor to be considered – it just can't be the only factor.

What's Next?

The redistricting commission has been racing around since Sunday, holding more public hearings. Republicans on the panel say they are hoping they can come to a compromise that would allow them to pass a 10-year plan on Wednesday, with the support of the two Democrats on the commission. That doesn't seem likely.

The two Democrats on the commission - State Sen. Vernon Sykes of Cleveland and his daughter, House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes of Akron - have offered a compromise plan that would result in 42 Democratic House seats and 13 Democratic Senate seats. It's not clear yet if the Republicans are willing to consider that.

Without the support of the two Democrats, they could have their maps, but they would only be in effect for four years. After that, under the constitutional amendment, they would have to try again.

No matter what happens, voter rights groups are likely to race to the courts looking to overturn the maps – simply because they don't follow the state constitution. And it is hard to imagine any court, much less the Ohio Supreme Court, agreeing that these maps follow the law.

In other words, the jig is up.

"What's striking to me is how the Republican leadership is behaving like this is 10 years ago,'' Niven said. "But there's a new sheriff in town. And the things they could get away with then will be their map's undoing now."