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A deeply cynical moment in gerrymandering from the Ohio GOP

Areeqe Hammad of Cleveland testifies at the first public hearing of the Ohio Redistricting Commission in the city on Aug. 23. (Julie Carr Smyth/AP)
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There are fewer uglier and more cynical political processes than redistricting and gerrymandering. But even by those standards, what’s taking place in Ohio is extraordinary.

To recap: Ohio voters in 2015 and 2018 strongly backed constitutional amendments designed to rein in gerrymandering — i.e., the process of drawing districts to favor one party or another. But the state’s redistricting commission, which is controlled 5 to 2 by Republicans, just approved state legislative maps that include supermajorities of districts favoring the GOP. About 70 percent of state Senate seats and at least 62 percent of state House seats favor Republicans, despite the state’s voters generally giving Republicans about 54 percent of the vote. Even in casting the decisive votes, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) and Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) expressed reservations about the constitutionality of the maps.

The idea that Ohio Republicans would attempt this isn’t wholly surprising. Both sides try to squeeze every last advantage they can out of redistricting, by hook or crook; Republicans just happen to be better at it.

What’s remarkable about the situation in Ohio, though, is their justification for how this complies with the gerrymandering changes that voters supported.

The reforms stipulate that the maps “must correspond closely to the statewide preferences of the voters of Ohio” based on election results from the past 10 years. That would seem to suggest that the number of GOP-leaning districts should be somewhere near that 54 percent mark.

But no, say the Republicans on the redistricting commission. They say the maps are justified because Republicans win statewide a lot more than that.

Andrew Tobias, a statehouse reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, posted the GOP members’ full statement in the wee hours of Thursday morning. I’ll quote it at length:

When considering the results of each of [the 16 statewide] elections [over the last decade], the Commission determined that Republican candidates won thirteen out of sixteen of those elections, resulting in a statewide proportion of voters favoring statewide Republican candidates of 81% and a statewide proportion of voters favoring statewide Democratic candidates of 19%.
Thus the statewide proportion of voters favoring statewide Republican candidates is between 54% and 81%, and the statewide proportion of voters favoring statewide Democratic candidates is between 19% and 46%.
Using this data, the Commission adopted the final general assembly district plan, which contains 85 districts (64.4%) favoring Republican candidates and 47 districts (35.6%) favoring Democratic candidates out of a total of 132 districts. Accordingly, the statewide proportion of districts whose voters favor each political party corresponds closely to the statewide preferences of voters in Ohio.

To recap, they say winning 81 percent of statewide races suggests the state’s preference for Republicans is as high as 81 percent, even though voters give those Republicans only around 54 percent of the vote in those races. That might sound uncharitable, but that’s what it says: “Thus the statewide proportion of voters favoring statewide Republican candidates is between 54% and 81%.” By this logic, you could seemingly draw up to 81 percent Republican districts, because that would fall within the range of statewide preferences.

It’s clearly intended to skirt the language of the redistricting changes that voters backed 71 percent to 29 percent in 2015. But it does so in an altogether brazen manner.

Just think about the logical extent of the argument. Republicans haven’t won a statewide race in California or New York in the past decade, but we would never say that “the statewide proportion of California and New York voters favoring statewide Democrats is as high as 100 percent.”

There are many states like Ohio that routinely give one party or another 51 percent to 55 percent of the vote statewide. One party wins statewide the vast majority of the time because voters are so polarized and there aren’t many swing voters. But by this logic, it would be fair to gerrymander the other party almost completely out of existence in the state legislature.

Or think about how it might apply in other areas. Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. Does that mean “the nationwide proportion of American voters favoring Democratic presidential candidates is as high as 87.5 percent"?

Of course not. But perhaps Democrats would be justified in overhauling the electoral college or redrawing state lines to better reflect that obvious and strong nationwide preference for their candidates.

It remains to be seen whether these Ohio maps will pass muster. The Ohio Supreme Court would hear any challenges. It has a 4-to-3 GOP majority, but as Tobias writes, the Republican chief justice has a history of being tough on gerrymandering.

Regardless, though, it seems to be the latest confirmation that, whatever good-faith efforts there might be to rein in gerrymandering, politicians will continue to do what they can to trample over the will of the voters in the name of partisan gain. It has happened again and again after voters approve such measures. And politicians will apparently do it with a straight face and a smile.