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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: The Ohio GOP congressional map is bad - really bad. But there is a chance it won't stick

cecil thomas
State Sen. Cecil Thomas' Office
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Courtesy
State Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Avondale, on the Senate floor Tuesday in opposition of Senate Bill 258.

The chutzpah of the Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly is simply beyond belief.

They have taken a seriously flawed map of new congressional districts and are ramming it through a Republican-dominated legislature at warp speed – with nearly no time for voting rights advocates to analyze it.

And, in the process, they are thumbing their noses at Ohio voters, who voted overwhelmingly in May 2018 for a constitutional amendment aimed at taking much of the partisan politics out of the redistricting process.

The Republicans in Columbus simply don't seem to care what the Ohio Constitution says.

Sorry, not our problem. Go to court if you want.

All you have to do is look at what the Republicans have done to Hamilton County, a county where Democrats do very well.

The current map, adopted in 2011, has the county divided between two congressional districts – Ohio-1, represented by Republican Steve Chabot and Ohio-2, represented by Republican Brad Wenstrup.

This horrible mess of a map cracks Hamilton County into three congressional districts, giving a chunk to Rep. Warren Davidson of Troy, who represents Butler County. And it maintains a ridiculous land bridge to heavily Republican Warren County, for the benefit of Chabot, who would have a hard time getting re-elected without that red county.

And why would they do this?

Clearly, it is meant to dilute the Democratic vote in Hamilton County.

"It's outrageous," said Caleb Faux, the former Hamilton County Democratic Party executive director. "There is absolutely no reason to split Hamilton County into three districts. None."

Collin Marozzi, the deputy policy director for ACLU Ohio, pointed to Hamilton County as an example in his testimony last week before the Ohio Senate Local Government and Elections Committee, where he testified in opposition to the original version of the bill passed along party lines Tuesday.

"We've heard for a decade how the people of Hamilton County can’t get a phone call back from either of their two current congressional representatives," Marozzi said. "Why did the map drawers think adding a third congressman for Hamilton County would improve this?"

Well, maybe because constituents getting return phone calls from their congressional offices was not the GOP priority in map-making. Making Chabot's life easier apparently was.

And there are voices in the city of Cincinnati who are saying that this map dilutes the political power of Black voters within the city. One of them is State Sen. Cecil Thomas, who had much to say about this GOP redistricting bill Tuesday.

“This congressional map does not reflect my constituents or my county," Thomas said in a written statement. "Hamilton County has been cracked into three different districts – none of which fairly represent voters’ preferences. By splitting the Black population in Hamilton County, this map does significant harm to minority communities. This is not what the people wanted. They asked for fair representation, not racially gerrymandered districts.”

Faux made the point that the GOP map pulls communities like Forest Park, Springdale, Lincoln Heights, and Springfield Township - all of which have significant Black populations - into Davidson's overwhelmingly white and Republican district, thus diluting any influence those Black voters might have.

Mia Lewis, associate director of Common Cause Ohio, said the switcheroo of maps the Republicans pulled Monday night did not make the situation better or the proposed map any more palatable.

"They went from something unbelievably bad to something not quite as bad, but that doesn't mean they get to call it good," Lewis told WVXU.

"If they put a 20-ton weight on our heads and then replace it with a 15-ton weight, we are not going to say thank you," Lewis said.

And, yes, it is bad, this Republican map which is moving at warp speed through the Republican-dominated Ohio General Assembly.

Just how bad is it?

Really bad.

Remember, Ohio loses one congressional district because of the 2020 census, going from 16 districts to 15. The partisan vote in Ohio in recent elections works out to about 54% Republican and 46% Democratic. Pretty close, but a decided Republican advantage.

Yet this plan passed by the Senate and on its way to certain passage in the House has only two solidly Democratic districts – one in Franklin County and one in Cuyahoga County.

Senate Republican leaders say their new Congressional map creates six districts that heavily favor Republicans, two that favor Democrats, and seven "competitive" seats. Opponents say that is misleading at best. Most of the so-called competitive districts, they say, are really not all that competitive.

Here's the analysis Tuesday night from Fair Districts Ohio, a coalition of organizations that has been lobbying for a plan that follows the Ohio Constitution:

"The map divides populous counties, dilutes the power of minority representation, and advantages the political party in power. The map unduly favors Republicans and assures a minimum of 11 Republican seats, with a most likely result of 12 Republican, and 3 Democratic seats. Cuyahoga County and Hamilton County remain divided into three districts, and Cincinnati remains locked within a clearly gerrymandered district in a clear effort to dilute the urban vote."

This is just the kind of one-sided partisan result that the 2018 constitutional amendment was designed to avoid. That, in and of itself, makes this a bad map.

In a story by Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow, State Sen. Rob McColley of Napoleon, the chief sponsor of the GOP bill, says the partisan breakdown might not be so important because elections can be unpredictable.

"We should really be careful about drawing bright lines here and deciding that these bright lines are the end-all-be-all arbiter of how these districts and these races are going to shake out, 'cause that's not how elections work," McColley said.

I'm not even sure what that means. And I've covered my fair share of elections since 1974.

Lewis of Common Cause Ohio called the process a "dog and pony show" over a plan the GOP is trying to "ram through the legislature at breakneck speed."

Because the plan passed the Senate with zero Democratic support and is likely to do the same when it comes to a vote in the House, it will be a four-year plan.

And the same voter rights groups who are now challenging the state legislative district map approved by the Republicans in September before the Ohio Supreme Court are likely to head straight to court and file suit against the congressional redistricting plan as well.

There are three suits pending on the state legislative district maps.

Ohio's Republican governor, Mike DeWine, could veto the congressional map bill, which is what Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democratic candidate for the 2022 gubernatorial nomination, suggested he do. But the veto wouldn't stick because Republicans have enough to override it.

Don't hold your breath waiting for that one.

Believe it or not, there is hope for opponents of the GOP plan on the Ohio Supreme Court, even though four of the seven members are Republicans.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Conner, who can't run for re-election next year because of judicial age limits, has shown herself in the past to be not very fond of partisan gerrymandering. She will be the swing vote and could very well end up voting with the Democrats.

A loss in the Ohio Supreme Court would send it back to the Republican majority to try again.

Maybe this time, statehouse Republicans would be chastened and actually try to follow the law.

"Maybe" being the operative word here.