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Commentary: You Should Be LOL-ing At Republican Reaction To Ohio's Gerrymandering Case

david niven
John Minchillo
David Niven holds a map displaying the disparity of Ohio congressional district office locations, with orange locations representing areas whose offices are outside it's own district bounds.

Last week, when a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for Southern Ohio found the congressional district map Ohio has been using since 2012 to be unconstitutional and rigged in favor of the Republicans, there was a disparate range of emotions from one end of the political spectrum to the other.

In my case, it was gales of laughter when I started reading quotes from Ohio Republican leaders about how unfair and mean this decision was.

Sorry, couldn't help myself.

I had to laugh out loud when I saw the quote from Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof calling the lawsuit "politically motivated."

Gosh, ya think, Mr. President?

OK, Mr. President, if that lawsuit was "politically motivated" what was that congressional district map you and your fellow Republicans came up with after the 2010 Census?

Let me tell you what it was – it was the very definition of "politically motivated."

In 2011, when Ohio's Republican majority in the legislature drew the present crazy-quilt, mish-mosh of 16 congressional districts, it was done for one reason and one reason only: to shut the Democrats out of any chance of competing in the vast majority of Ohio's congressional districts.

Anyone who believes otherwise probably has a very tenuous grip on reality.

The end result of this GOP jigsaw puzzle was to elect 12 Republicans and four Democrats in 2012. And in 2014. And in 2016. And, most recently, in 2018.

This happened despite the fact that in each of these elections, the voters were nearly split 50-50 in voting for Democratic and Republican congressional candidates – 52 percent Republican in 2018 – and the GOP won 75 percent of the House seats.

One for you, two for me….

The judges, who essentially called the state's defense of this hogwash, ordered the legislature to come up with a new map for the 2020 election by June 14, which, admittedly, is a tall order.

The state of Ohio will appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary, according to Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican. He wants the three-judge panel to stay its order for a new map until the Supreme Court can sort this out.

Right now, the U.S. Supreme Court has before it gerrymandering cases from Maryland and North Carolina, and the result of those could have a major impact on Ohio's case – including nullifying the U.S. District Court order.

We'll have to wait and see on that one.

Now, let's make one thing clear: Ohio Democratic Party leaders are not pious little halo-wearing angels when it comes to congressional redistricting.

If the Democrats had controlled the legislature in 2011, you can rest assured they would have drawn a map as favorable as possible to Democratic congressional candidates, although it's unlikely they could have matched the GOP domination.

But it would be a good bet that they would try – a good bet, like putting $2 on Country House to win the Kentucky Derby at 65-1 odds.

The Republicans' main complaint is that Ohio voters already approved a new plan for drawing congressional district lines that is to go into effect in the 2022 election. It takes some of the politics out of it, but not nearly all of it. The final result, its critics say, is left in the hand of politicians, both Republican and Democrat.

Mark R. Weaver, a lawyer and a long-time Ohio Republican campaign strategist, said there is something unnatural about trying to make redistricting a politics-free zone.

"Taking the politics out of drawing district lines is like taking the tomato out of tomato soup,'' Weaver said.

The U.S. District Court panel didn't seem to care about Ohio's 2022 plan one way or another. They want a new map now.

The three judges cited Hamilton County as a good example of political gerrymandering run amuck.

"They split Hamilton County and the city of Cincinnati in a strange, squiggly, curving shape, dividing its Democratic voters and preventing them from forming a coherent voting block, which ensured the election of Republican representatives in District 1 and District 2,'' the decision said.

ohio gerrymandering
Credit John Minchillo / AP
Mindy Nagel points to her home in Cincinnati on a congressional district map in April 2019. Their bedroom is in Ohio's 1st congressional district while their garage is in the 2nd. Mindy usually votes Democratic, while husband Tom usually goes Republican.

The judges went on to say that the GOP threw all the Columbus Democrats into a "Franklin County sinkhole," so that they could preserve two seats outside the city for Republican incumbents.

They also created a monstrosity, District 9, known popularly as "The Snake on the Lake," which stretches in a narrow strip from Toledo to Cleveland. This was done to throw two Democratic incumbents – Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich – into the same district so they would have to face each other in a primary. Kaptur won that primary.

David Niven, a University of Cincinnati political science professor who testified for the plaintiffs in the Ohio gerrymandering case, said that, under the court ruling, "there is just no way that Hamilton County will not end up being a Democratic district.

"It only became Republican because (the Republicans) split it in half and added Warren County to Steve Chabot's 1st District,'' Niven said. "Totally political. There was no other reason to split Hamilton County."

Niven said he had a group of UC students draw their own Ohio maps without regard to creating partisan districts and it had a surprising result.

"If you just do it by basic logic – by taking blocks of the state and making them into districts – they came up with a map that was shockingly balanced," Niven said.

Weaver said that if, in the Maryland case, the Supreme Court applies what he called "the political question doctrine,'' the cases of Ohio and other states would be nullified.

The doctrine, Weaver said, is about "who gets the ultimate decision on matters of dispute – the legislature branch or the judicial branch. And on a question of redistricting, they may well say that this is a matter for the legislatures to decide, not the courts."

Weaver did say that he is not aware of the doctrine being applied in any congressional redistricting cases.

Niven said he thinks Weaver's doctrine is dubious at best.

"The principal of equal population in districts is a direct result of judicial action, not legislative action,'' Niven said.

The judicial branch is clearly able to rule on questions of conducting fair elections, Niven said.

The bottom line of this Ohio case, Niven said, is simple.

"You, the Republican legislators, targeted people to take power away from them,'' Niven said. "That can't stand."

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Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.