Analysis: Voting rights groups are trying to scuttle Ohio's new district maps. It's a long shot
Three voting rights organizations who have been battling for over two years now for fair legislative districts in Ohio may have hit a brick wall.
And all it took was the change of one seat on the seven-member Ohio Supreme Court to possibly make the dream of fair districts go up in a puff of smoke.
But they haven't given up just yet.
Three voting rights groups have filed objections with the Ohio Supreme Court over the legislative district maps approved last month by the Republican majority on the Ohio Redistricting Commission, with the grudging support of the two Democrats.
The two Democrats on the commission — Ohio House Minority Leader Allison Russo and Senate Minority Leader Nickie J. Antonio — clearly feared that if they didn't sign on, the five GOP members would have simply passed a plan that would be far worse for Democrats.
The three groups that have asked the Ohio Supreme Court to hear their objections are a national organization headed by Eric Holder, attorney general in the Obama administration; a coalition called the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, and the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
Last year, voting rights groups challenged the Republican maps in the Ohio Supreme Court five times. And five times a four-member majority of the court declared the maps to be unconstitutional.
But the Republican majority on the commission was able to kick the can down the road; they went 16 months without calling a meeting before they reconvened in September, held a few quick public hearings and approved their favored maps at lightning speed.
After doing absolutely nothing for 16 months.
When they did meet in September, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican member of the commission, said they needed to have maps in place by Oct. 23 so that boards of elections could have time to be ready for candidate filing deadlines in December.
Again, this was after over 500 days of doing nothing.
This time, the voting rights groups are coming to the table with the same arguments they used successfully before the Ohio Supreme Court last year — that the maps are unconstitutional because they favor one party over the other; and that they don't meet the court's proportionality standard.
That standard is that, in elections between 2014 and 2022, Ohio voters favored GOP candidates 57% of the time and Democratic candidates 43% of the time.
The plan adopted on Sept. 27 gives Republicans an advantage in 61 of 99 Ohio House Districts and 23 of 33 Ohio Senate districts — enough to preserve the Republicans' veto-proof super-majority in the Ohio General Assembly, which was clearly their goal all along.
"They came up with maps meant to protect incumbents," said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
"The commission had a set of independent maps that were fair and met all constitutional requirements right in front of them; and they chose to make their own maps," Miller said.
The Ohio Redistricting Commission was created by a constitutional amendment passed by 71% of Ohio voters in 2015. It was meant to lessen the influence of partisan gerrymandering.
The constitutional amendment said that no legislative district plan "shall be drawn primarily to favor a political party" and that the maps "shall correspond closely to the statewide preferences of the voters of Ohio."
The maps before the Ohio Supreme Court do neither of those things, Miller said.
One member of the Ohio GOP leadership — House Majority Floor Leader Bill Seitz of Green Township — was positively giddy over the challenges filed in the Ohio Supreme Court, because, as he said, the voting rights groups "are destined to lose."
"I couldn't be happier about this," Seitz told me. "I was surprised that they decided to file this at all."
What has Seitz so cocksure the challenges will fail?
The make-up of the Ohio Supreme Court changed dramatically. And probably not in the favor of the voting rights groups.
Maureen O'Connor, a Republican who was chief justice until recently, voted with the three Democrats on the court to reject the Republican-drawn maps in 2022. She is a rare Ohio Republican who is a fierce opponent of partisan gerrymandering.
But O'Connor could not run for re-election last year because of Ohio's judicial age limits law. Republican Justice Sharon Kennedy ran for chief justice and won.
Kennedy was part of the GOP minority. Now she is leader of a GOP majority, after Gov. Mike DeWine appointed Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters to her vacant seat.
"Ms. O'Connor and her cabal are no longer in charge," Seitz said. "It stands to reason that with new facts, a new case, and a new court, they will overrule the previous decisions."
Miller said opponents of the new map are undeterred by the shift in the court.
"We will make our arguments because we believe we have the laws of Ohio on our side," Miller said.
And, if they fail, voting rights groups have one ace in the hole.
Citizens Not Politicians, a coalition of voting rights groups, is hoping to start a statewide petition initiative to replace the current system with one where elected officials are taken completely out of the process of drawing state legislative and congressional district maps.
If it makes the ballot in November 2024 and is passed by Ohio voters, it would no longer matter what the Ohio Supreme Court has to say about legislative map-making.