A federal court has ruled that Ohio's congressional map is an "unconstitutional partisan gerrymander" and must be redrawn before the 2020 election.
In their ruling Friday, a three-judge panel from the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati determine that the map was intentionally drawn "to disadvantage Democratic voters and entrench Republican representatives in power." The judges argue the map violates voters' constitutional right to choose their representatives and exceeds the state's powers under Article I of the Constitution.
"Accordingly, we declare Ohio’s 2012 map an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, enjoin its use in the 2020 election, and order the enactment of a constitutionally viable replacement," the judges wrote in their decision.
Ohio lawmakers must enact a new congressional map by June 14, 2019. If the state fails to meet that deadline, or passes a plan that's not "constitutionally permissible," the court will assume control of the map-drawing process itself.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost plans to request a stay of the decision and appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is currently deliberating challenges to congressional maps from Maryland and North Carolina.
A coalition including the League of Women Voters and ACLU sued Ohio last year, saying Republicans redrew the state’s congressional map in 2011 with intention of maintaining their three-to-one advantage. Since the map came into effect in 2012, Ohio's congressional delegation has been locked in at 12 Republicans and four Democrats.
The judges agreed with voting rights groups in their argument that Ohio's districts were "intended to burden Plaintiffs' constitutional rights, had that effect, and the effect is not explained by other legitimate justifications."
Voting rights groups cheered the ruling. ACLU legal director Freda Levenson said in a statement that the opinion "completely validates every one of our claims and theories in every respect." Jen Miller, executive director of LWV Ohio, told WOSU that the ruling was "a triumph for Ohio's democracy and for every Ohio voter."
"We have the greatest hope that the people of Ohio will have a new, fair map before the 2020 election," Miller said.
Ohio’s current map was drawn in 2011 by Republican state lawmakers in a Columbus hotel room known as "The Bunker." The group included national GOP consultants, working under then-U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, but no Democrats, who say they were left out of the process entirely. The resulting map was passed by the GOP-dominated legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. John Kasich.
“These national Republicans generated some of the key strategic ideas for the map, maximizing its likely pro-Republican performance, and had the authority to approve changes to the map before their Ohio counterparts implemented them,” the judge write. “Throughout the process, the Ohio and national map drawers made decisions based on their likely partisan effects.”
Over two weeks of arguments, Democratic representatives spoke about about how they were not consulted about the new district boundaries. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo) testified via video that her district was “hacked apart” during the 2012 redraw.
Her district, dubbed “the Snake by the Lake” because of its odd shape, stretches along Lake Erie across multiple counties. The redraw forced Kaptur into a primary against Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who she ultimately beat.
Meanwhile, records show that Franklin County and Columbus were divided to create District 3 as a “sinkhole” of Democratic voters and preserve Republican majorities in nearby Districts 12 and 15. An alternate plan to create 13 “safe” Republican seats, by splitting Columbus four ways, was abandoned because the margins of victory would be tighter.
Former Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder objected to arguments that Democrats were denied input. He says legislators on both sides agreed to each party losing one seat after the 2010 Census.
The judges found that Ohio's map proved to advantage Republicans in every election since being enacted. The decision says experts "demonstrated that levels of voter support for Democrats can and have changed, but the map’s partisan output remains stubbornly undisturbed."
In the 2018 election, Republican candidates for U.S. House seats won 52% of the vote but 75% of the state's 16 congressional seats.
Dominic Binkley, a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General's Office, says the office will continue to fight for the congressional map in court.
"This decision will result in judges being involved in every redistricting map in every election," Binkley says.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose said on Friday his office "will work with county boards of elections to administer fair, accurate and secure elections in 2020, pending the conclusion of the judicial process."
LaRose is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with House Speaker Larry Householder and Senate president Larry Obhof.
"As you know, I've been a longtime proponent of redistricting reform and I continue to hope that the opportunity to exercise that process is in 2021, and that's what 75% of Ohioans supported when they voted on Issue 1," LaRose said in an interview with WOSU.
Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment in May 2018 to place new requirements on Ohio's map-drawing process. But the new map wouldn't be created until after the 2020 Census, and no congressional election would be affected until 2022. Although voting groups mostly supported Ballot Issue 1, their lawsuit sought to redraw the maps immediately.
Under the amendment, a congressional map that lasts 10 years must win 50% support from the state’s minority party. If it fails to do so, the map would be drawn instead by a bipartisan commission. If that map doesn’t get enough support, a 10-year map could then pass with just one-third of the minority party’s support, or a four-year map could be passed without minority support but with stricter rules.
The ruling against Ohio comes just over one week after a federal court struck down Michigan's congressional and state lemaps as unconstitutional. The judges said Republicans set district lines to unfairly disadvantage Democrats, and the state must redraw them by August 1.
You can view the U.S. District Court's complete ruling below.
This story will be updated as more information develops.