Extreme Partisan Gerrymandering Litigation in Ohio

A. Philip Randolph Institute v. Householder

 – F Supp. – May 3, 2019 (SD. Ohio)

at https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/legal-work/2019-05-03-262-Opinion%20and%20Order.pdf


Just the other day I read a news blurb about an election reapportionment case from my home state of Ohio. Reading further, one of the chief counsel was a remarkable woman I’d worked closely with more than 40 years ago in Boston. So I downloaded it for a little light reading. The opinion is 300 pages long and fascinating reading. It highlights the extremes of partisan gerrymandering, and the efforts of a thoughtful three-judge court and highly technically proficient counsel to assess and then remedy it.  


Ohio is a pink state with large blue cities like Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron and Toledo and large swaths of red rural counties. It has been devastated by rust belt job losses in manufacturing, and benefited by large, semi-recovering cities like Cincinnati and Cleveland and the steady, strong growth of Columbus. They are in Hamilton County, Cuyahoga County, and Franklin County respectively.


In the 2010 red wave election, it elected a Republican Governor, Republican House and Senate and a strong Republican Tea Party contingent in the House of Representatives. They set about to preserve this fortunate (for them) confluence of power by extreme partisan gerrymandering techniques, known as cracking and packing.


Cincinnati was a red city when I was a kid; it’s now blue. The gerrymander split it in two and paired each side of the city with Republican voting counties to assure two red results. You really have to see the map to appreciate the ingenuity, see Opinion p. 195. That’s called “cracking”.


Columbus was a red city when I was growing up; it’s now very blue. So they fiddled with the lines, made their own contribution to modern art, and put as many loyal Democrats as possible in the same district (see map at Opinion p. 203) then scattered and apportioned out the remains of Franklin County with adjacent rural red counties to assure Republican representation; the county was split three ways. That’s called “packing” as well as “cracking”. Republican reapportionment mapmakers referred to it as the “Franklin County sinkhole” with a heavily Democratic voting base, that elects its representative with a 70% voting majority.


In Cuyahoga County, they broke up long time Democratic districts and created one long skinny district that runs from Cleveland to Toledo, known as the “snake by the lake”. You can appreciate the “snake” at Opinion p. 217 It encompassed parts of 5 separate counties from Lucas, Ottawa, Erie, Lorain and Cuyahoga and is packed with Democrats who win with a 70% majority while the rest of the region is reliably red.


Another Cuyahoga County district was vivisected and strung down to Akron (Summit County) to create another heavily Democratic district. You can enjoy the mapmakers’ creative expression at Opinion p. 222. Both Cuyahoga and Summit (Akron) Counties were split four ways. These counties and districts were cracked and packed to assure that one district would elect a Democrat while all the surrounding districts were safely Republican controlled.


The results were a steady string of 12-4 Republican victories in a state where the natural breakout was 9-7 Republican. These electoral results were durable throughout the decade although Democratic share of the popular vote varied from 41% to 49% depending on the election cycle. Even in the blue wave election of 2018, the 12/4 split survived.


The court found that the partisan gerrymandering was intended to discriminate against and for voters based on their political affiliation, and that it achieved its expected and planned results regardless of the partisan share of voter turnout, and it found little to no justification for the extreme gerrymandering practiced by the state legislature, Governor and national Republican Party operatives in Ohio. It ordered the state of Ohio to submit new maps in a timely fashion that would comply with 14th Amendment Equal Protection of citizens’ voting rights and First Amendment rights of association. At the close of the opinion, the Court showed several maps that would meet constitutional muster. Opinion p. 300 and 301. One of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses ran 3 million reapportionment maps by computer to determine whether you could do a better job of enshrining your party’s representatives for a decade despite the ups and downs of the political cycle; you couldn’t.


The case is being appealed to the Supreme Court and will likely be considered along with the challenges to Maryland and Pennsylvania’s reapportionment. The Supreme Court held in Baker v. Carr that the Constitution assures one man one vote in reapportionment; we will see how high their tolerance is for extreme partisan gerrymandering.


After decades of partisan gerrymandering to protect each party’s incumbents, California voters approved a Citizen’s Commission to draw the lines. It’s produced many more competitive elections where a district’s voters are now able to choose their own representatives in close, competitive elections rather than the representatives choosing their voters in predictable and overwhelmingly partisan landslides. So when the blue wave of 2018 materialized, many California Congressional seats actually changed hands and infused new blood into the sclerotic and dysfunctional Congressional partisan gridlock.


Let’s hope that the Supreme Court shows its wise side, not its own partisanship.


Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin

Dated: 5/22/19

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