Gerrymandering is now officially a bipartisan issue at the U.S. Supreme Court, which has decided to hear a suit brought by Republicans who don’t like the way Democrats drew up a Maryland congressional district.
Earlier this fall, the court heard arguments – but has not yet ruled – in a separate Wisconsin gerrymandering suit filed by Democrats upset with the state legislative map work of Republicans.
Decisions that either state went too far in drawing maps for political reasons could have ramifications in Ohio when the next district lines are drawn following the 2020 census.
As part of an ongoing cleveland.com series – Out of Line: Impact 2017 and Beyond, focusing on potential solutions to rid Ohio of political gerrymandering, here’s how Ohio could be affected and why.
What rules are now in place?
Only a handful of rules now restrict what lawmakers can do in creating Ohio’s new set of congressional districts every 10 years. (Separately, reform has been put in place for Statehouse districts, starting in 2021.)
The congressional districts must be nearly the same size in population and not disenfranchise minority groups. But there are no limits on how many ways cities and counties can be split, nor are there requirements for nonpartisan or bipartisan support. The maps are approved by the legislature and governor.
The result has been a set of maps with districts that often weave more than 100 miles across the state, split counties multiple times and result in predictable landslide results.
The current maps have turned out exactly as planned, with Republicans winning the same 12 seats in each election since 2012 and Democrats winning the same four seats each time.
Does the Supreme Court say gerrymandering is OK?
The Supreme Court in 1986 ruled that partisan gerrymandering violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, but left ambiguous the standard by which courts might rule on such claims.
A clearer answer on the limits of partisan gerrymandering could now come soon.
The court this fall heard a dispute out of Wisconsin, where Republicans won 61 percent of the Statehouse seats with just 49 percent of the vote.
And the court on Friday decided to also hear the Maryland case, which involves allegations that Democrats retaliated against Republican voters by redrawing one of the state’s congressional districts to increase the chances of a Democratic win. The case was filed by GOP voters.
What do Maryland and Wisconsin have to do with Ohio?
“The two cases give the court an opportunity to say that there is a line that if you go too far, you are in violation” of the Constitution, said Edward B. Foley, director of election law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.
The court could have ruled on just the Wisconsin case, applying any related matters to the Maryland case, Foley said.
But Foley said the timing is one reason the court might have taken the case now, to wrap up both cases before the next maps are drawn in 2021, following the 2020 census.
Which way is the court leaning?
Foley would not hazard a guess as to which way the court would rule.
“I think it will be close. I think it likely will be a 5-4 decision with Justice Kennedy being the pivotal vote,” Foley said.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a 1988 appointment by Republican President Ronald Reagan, is often the court’s swing vote.
How does Maryland differ from Ohio?
In Ohio, the Ohio House and Senate approve the maps, which then go to the governor for approval.
The current Maryland map was put in place under Martin O’Malley, then the Democratic governor who acted on the recommendation of an advisory commission he appointed, said Ashley Oleson, administrative director for the Maryland League of Women Voters.
The league has since backed a proposal from current Gov. Lawrence Hogan Jr., a Republican, to establish an independent commission, but that proposal was rejected by the Maryland House of Representatives, Oleson said.
The league continues to advocate for reform in Maryland.
What is the status of other gerrymandering fixes for Ohio?
The Ohio League of Women Voters, Common Cause Ohio and others continue to circulate petitions aimed at placing redistricting reform on the November 2018 ballot.
Their proposal would prioritize drawing maps that make geographic sense, balance the districts politically and establish more say in the process for the political party in the minority. But it would leave elected leaders in charge, unlike in other states that have created independent commissions.
More than half of the required 305,591 signatures have been collected, organizers report.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of four Ohio House and Senate members are trying to determine whether to introduce their own proposal. The group held two public hearings, with testimony unanimously favor of reform, and met privately at least twice. But no solution has been offered yet.