New York State In-depth

EXPLAINER: What’s in store for Ohio’s unsettled political maps?

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The 2022 election campaign may have been held and decided, but Ohio’s political maps are far from settled.

It was intended to be a once-per-decade process to redraw the state’s U.S. House of Representatives and Statehouse districts to reflect the updated population numbers from the 2020 census. Now it promises to extend to 2023 and likely beyond.

While most US states managed to finally settle their card disputes, Ohio’s protracted ordeal has trapped it in a uniquely confusing legal stalemate.

Here’s a look at how Ohio got here and what may (or may not) be next:

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HOW DOES THE NEW MAP CREATION PROCESS WORK?

This was the first time Ohio tried new ways of drawing congressional and legislative maps.

In 2015, Ohio voters wanted to avoid partisan gerrymandering and voted overwhelmingly to authorize a new, non-partisan Ohio Redistricting Commission to draw statehouse maps. These are the districts of state senators and representatives that send voters to Columbus.

If both political parties agreed to the new borders, the maps would be in place for a full decade under the new rules. Single party endorsement would result in a four-year card.

In 2018, another successful constitutional amendment also resonated with voters. It set up a new system for drawing lots for the state’s US House of Representatives districts — that is, the districts of congressmen who send voters to Washington.

The state legislature would take the first crack at drawing the lines. If they failed, the commission would be next. If that failed, lawmakers could try one last time. A three-fifths majority of the minority party — in this case the Democrats — would need to approve the new map for it to last 10 years. Otherwise it would only take four years again.

As it turned out, apparent incentives for bipartisan compromise failed, and Democrats did not cast a single vote on any of the final maps, all of which were drawn by Republicans.

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WHAT POWER DID THE NEW SYSTEM GIVE THE STATE HIGH COURT?

Voters gave the Ohio Supreme Court “exclusive, original jurisdiction” to decide legal challenges, including three lawsuits challenging the legislative cards and two lawsuits challenging the congressional card.

In a series of 4-3 votes, the court struck out every card that was sent to them. The court said the cards unfairly benefited one party: the Republicans. Those cards included two separate congressional cards — one approved by the Legislature in November 2021 and a second approved by the Redistribution Commission in March 2022 — and five sets of Statehouse cards.

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BUT THE ELECTIONS IN OHIO HAVE BEEN DONE NEVER?

It’s correct. Amid last year’s legal wrangling, Ohio courts allowed the May and August primary elections to continue under unconstitutional maps.

That fall, Republicans won 10 of Ohio’s 15 congressional seats under the controversial U.S. House map (though Democrats had several notable victories). The controversial Statehouse maps yielded even larger Republican supermajorities.

But the cards are not valid beyond this election cycle. They need to be redrawn.

OK, SO THE CARDS DON’T FLY. WERE THERE ANY CONSEQUENCES?

That’s the riddle. Even as they missed deadlines and disregarded court orders, Republicans argued that they were doing everything in their power to understand and interpret a trial that was still young. The court’s orders were unreasonable and contradictory, they said.

The voting and Democratic groups, which won seven consecutive rounds of the court, pleaded for detaining lawmakers or commissioners in contempt of court.

Ultimately, the judges fought back. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor told The Associated Press in an interview at the end of the year that she feared such a move would trigger a constitutional crisis.

Importantly, the Ohio Supreme Court had no other enforcement options available. The new system did not allow the court to impose a particular card—such as one preferred by plaintiffs or one developed by experts—nor to draw its own.

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WHERE ARE THESE CASES NOW?

The Ohio Congressional card dispute now awaits a lawsuit in the US Supreme Court, where Republican lawmakers have requested a review of their loss in state court.

The case could be linked to the closely watched Moore v. Harper, whose hearing was held in December. This case seeks to clarify whether the US Constitution’s provision, which gives state legislatures the power to enact rules about the “time, place, and manner” of congressional elections, means that state courts can be excluded from the process.

If Ohio’s appeal is denied, Ohio Republican House Speaker Bob Cupp has said lawmakers then have 30 days to pass a new congressional card. But the decision of the High Court is not expected for months.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s legislative cards expired with the November 2022 election — by order of a federal court. The Ohio Redistricting Commission must reassemble and produce new, constitutionally compliant maps in time for the 2024 election. The state constitution states that the trial cannot begin before July 1 of this year. Lawsuits against Statehouse cards that ended in a tie this summer remain open.

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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 in Republican favor by a score of 5-2 after the November election.

Cupp, a key player in the Redistribution saga, is retiring, but his successor will also be a Republican.

But the Ohio Supreme Court’s policy stance may have changed.

O’Connor, a Republican who played a key role in voting in court, retired Saturday due to age restrictions. The rise of her successor, GOP Judge Sharon Kennedy, left a court post to which Republican Gov. Mike DeWine appointed Republican Joe Deters, longtime Hamilton County prosecutor.

Time will tell if Deters — unlike O’Connor — sides with the other three Republican judges on the seven-member court and changes previous case results.

For her part, O’Connor has announced plans to advance county redistribution reforms in the Ohio constitution, likely the kind of independent commission she wrote about in one of her rulings. Many others are working on similar efforts. The timing of an election campaign was not fixed.

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