EXPLAINER: What's ahead for Ohio's unsettled political maps?
The election contests of 2022 may have been held and decided, but Ohio’s political maps remain far from settled.
It was supposed to be a once-per-decade process for redrawing the state's U.S. House and Statehouse districts, in order to reflect updated population figures from the 2020 Census. Now it promises to extend into 2023, and probably longer.
While most U.S. states managed to eventually settle their map disputes, Ohio's protracted ordeal has trapped it in a uniquely confounding legal stalemate.
Here's a look at how Ohio got here, and what may (or may not) come next:
HOW DID THE NEW MAPMAKING PROCESS WORK?
This was the first time Ohio tried out new ways of drawing congressional and legislative maps.
In 2015, Ohio voters were looking to avoid partisan gerrymandering, and voted overwhelmingly to empower a new, bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission to draw Statehouse maps. Those are the districts of the state senators and representatives whom voters send to Columbus.
Under the new rules, if both political parties said yes to the new boundaries, the maps would be in place for a full decade. Single-party support would result in a four-year map.
In 2018, another successful constitutional amendment was also wildly popular with voters. It set up a new system for drawing the state's U.S. House districts — that is, the districts of the representatives that voters send to Washington.
The state Legislature would get the first crack at drawing the lines. If they failed, the commission would be next. If it failed, then the Legislature could try a final time. A three-fifths majority of the minority party — in this case, Democrats — would need to agree to the new map for it to be in place for 10 years. Barring that, again, it would last only four years.
As it turned out, the seeming incentives for bipartisan compromise failed and Democrats didn't cast a single vote for any of the final maps, which were all Republican-drawn.
WHAT POWER DID THE NEW SYSTEM GIVE THE STATE’S HIGH COURT?
Voters gave the Ohio Supreme Court “exclusive, original jurisdiction” to decide legal challenges, which included three lawsuits against the legislative maps and two lawsuits against the congressional map.
In a series of 4-3 votes, the court struck down every map they were sent. The court said the maps unduly benefited one party: Republicans. Those maps included two separate congressional maps — one approved by lawmakers in November 2021 and a second that cleared the redistricting commission in March 2022 — and five sets of Statehouse maps.
YET OHIO’S ELECTIONS HAPPENED ANYWAY?
This fall, Republicans won 10 of Ohio’s 15 congressional seats under the disputed U.S. House map (although Democrats netted several notable wins ). The disputed Statehouse maps yielded even larger Republican supermajorities.
But the maps aren’t valid beyond this election cycle. They will need to be redrawn.
OK, SO THE MAPS DIDN’T FLY. WERE THERE CONSEQUENCES?
That's the conundrum. Even as they missed deadlines and flouted court instructions, Republicans argued that they were doing all they could to understand and interpret a fledgling process. The court's orders were unreasonable and conflicting, they said.
The voting-rights and Democratic groups that won seven consecutive rounds in court argued for lawmakers or commissioners to be held in contempt of court.
Ultimately, the justices balked. Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor told The Associated Press in a year-end interview that she feared taking such action would create a constitutional crisis.
Importantly, the Ohio Supreme Court had no other enforcement options available to it. The new system neither allowed the court to impose a particular map — say, one favored by the suing parties or developed by experts — nor to draw their own.
WHERE DO THOSE CASES STAND NOW?
Ohio's congressional map dispute is now awaiting action in the U.S. Supreme Court, where Republican legislative leaders have appealed for a review of their loss in state court.
The case could be considered in conjunction with the closely watched Moore v. Harper case, whose oral arguments were held in December. That case seeks to resolve whether the U.S. Constitution’s provision giving state legislatures the power to make the rules about the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections means state courts can be cut out of the process.
If Ohio's appeal is denied, Republican Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp has said lawmakers will then have 30 days to pass a new congressional map. But the high court’s decision isn’t expected for months.
Meanwhile, Ohio's legislative maps expired with the November 2022 election — on orders of a federal court. The Ohio Redistricting Commission will have to come back together and make new, constitutionally compliant maps in time for 2024 elections. The state constitution says that process can't begin before July 1 of this year. Lawsuits challenging Statehouse maps, which ended in a draw this summer, remain open.
HAVE OHIO'S POLITICAL DYNAMICS CHANGED?
Yes and no. The Ohio Redistricting Commission — made up of the governor, secretary of state, auditor and four lawmakers — remained 5-2 in Republicans' favor after the November elections.
Cupp, a key player in the redistricting saga, is retiring, but his successor will also be Republican.
But the Ohio Supreme Court's political leaning may have changed.
O'Connor, a Republican who was a key swing vote on the court, retired Saturday because of age limits. The ascension of her successor, GOP Justice Sharon Kennedy, left a court vacancy to which Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has appointed Republican Joe Deters, the longtime Hamilton County prosecutor.
Time will tell whether Deters sides with the 7-member court’s other three Republican justices — unlike O’Connor — altering earlier case outcomes.
For her part, O'Connor has announced plans to pursue redistricting reforms in the Ohio Constitution, likely the type of independent commission she wrote about in one of her decisions. Many others are collaborating on similar efforts. The timing of any ballot campaign hasn't been determined.