Lame Duck: The End of the Most Gerrymandered District in Ohio
Since the 1930s, Ohio’s 4th Congressional District has been under Republican control. At R+14, it is arguably the safest Republican district in the country. The current occupant of its seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is everyone’s favorite Trump sycophant: Jim Jordan.
If you zoom out to a certain distance on Google Maps, District 4 looks like a duck.
The district has been that way since 2011, when the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed and Republican Governor John Kasich signed into law the most recent post-census redistricting. It created sixteen congressional districts: four in Democratic hands and twelve in Republican hands. In all of the five subsequent election cycles, from 2012 to 2020, not once did any of those sixteen seats change hands from one party to the other.
In 2018, the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, and other groups sued the state over the map of congressional districts. A federal district court reviewed districts like District 4 and ruled in May 2019 that their degree of gerrymandering was unconstitutional. But Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost appealed the decision, knowing that the U.S. Supreme Court was considering gerrymandering cases from other states—and indeed, the Court’s June 2019 ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause had the effect of throwing out the district court’s decision entirely.
Collin Marozzi, a lawyer for the ACLU, summed it up by saying, “The main point of the SCOTUS decision had nothing to do with the merits. It had everything to do with the role of the federal judiciary. It was a split decision, five to four. They said there are political solutions to partisan gerrymandering. The five that wrote the opinion said they have no role to play in this dispute. The minority four said it’s an equal protection violation.”
Given how far District 4 is tilted toward Republicans, why would any Democrat ever bother running there? Janet Garrett, Jim Jordan’s opponent in the 2014, 2016, and 2018 elections, knew “it was a David and Goliath” situation. “I knew the odds,” she told me. “I ran because I felt that it was imperative that somebody put up a fight. If he ran unopposed, they would tout him around the district as so wonderful no one wants to reproach him.”
Garrett felt obligated to run not just to keep Jordan reproachable, but also because of his record in representing the interests of Ohio citizens. “He’s never introduced any legislation other than a monument to someone. He doesn’t introduce legislation; he’s just a bomb thrower. He didn’t go to Washington to legislate.” According to the Center for Effective Lawmaking, Jordan ranked 202 out of 205 House Republicans for effectiveness at passing legislation. By contrast, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, a Republican from Ohio’s 16th Congressional District and a supporter of the second Trump impeachment, ranked 13 out of 205.
One of the happy byproducts of Ohio losing a congressional seat as a result of the 2020 census is that the districts will be redrawn under more bipartisan rules put in place in the years since the 2010 census, following a push from the same groups who filed suit in the state courts.
There are two sections of the Ohio constitution that govern redistricting: Article XI, which is about redrawing the state district map, and Article XIX, which deals with redrawing the congressional map. Amendments to the latter, enacted in 2018, created the new, more bipartisan process:
- First, the general assembly attempts to redraw the map. Passage requires the support of three-fifths of each chamber and the support of at least half of each of the two main party caucuses in each chamber. If that bipartisan threshold can’t be reached, the whole process is automatically handed off to the state’s redistricting commission.
- The redistricting commission—whose seven members are the governor, the secretary of state, the state auditor, and four appointees made by leaders in the general assembly (two from each chamber and two from each party)—then draws a proposed map. The commission may approve a map with four out of the seven votes, so long as two of the supporting votes are the two members sent from the minority party of the general assembly.
- If the commission can’t get the votes, the general assembly gets another shot at drawing a map. In this round, a proposal will still need three-fifths support in each chamber to succeed, but only one third from each chamber’s party caucuses.
There is one last possible outcome: a decision of last resort. In this scenario, a simple majority in the general assembly can approve a redrawn map. However, this map will only be good for four years. The hope is that the incentives for having a consistent ten-year map—such as politicians knowing where their voters and donors are—will encourage a bipartisan decision.
Marozzi—who, before joining the ACLU, was a staffer in Ohio’s general assembly and worked on the on the 2018 congressional redistricting amendment—fears that Republicans will try go with this last process, after first allowing the bipartisan processes to play out. “If I’m a Republican mapmaker in Ohio trying to control as much as possible, I have no problem making a four-year map and ramming it through,” he said.
The amendments to the state constitution will also protect against duck-like districts by constraining majorities from slicing and dicing counties and cities. “There is a set number of counties”—sixty-five of the state’s eighty-eight counties—“that must remain whole to be a district,” Marozzi said. “Eighteen can only be cut once, and five can be split twice. This will get more compact districts with a reliable community of interest. You shouldn’t get the duck district again.”
While voters wait for the new maps, the state’s legislators and interest groups (and their lawyers) are waiting to see if the Census Bureau can deliver the data needed to redraw the maps by mid-August. Normally the data arrives by March 31, but COVID-19 forced the Bureau to push it back.
Attorney General Yost is already on the record in another lawsuit stating that he doesn’t want to stray from Census Bureau data, which Marozzi says is the most accurate data for redistricting. Any other data will lead to more arguments and lawsuits. Yost sued the bureau to release its findings by the Ohio mapmaking deadline and lost in trial court; that decision was reversed by a federal court last week. The bureau now has a deadline of August 16, giving Ohio lawmakers roughly 45 days to meet their September 30 deadline.
While the duck district may be dead, gerrymandering may yet turn out to be alive and well unless the current set of circumstances and concerned voters align to ensure the new map is fair. And while no map of congressional districts can promise Ohio the best politicians, a fairer map may give them a chance at removing the bad actors instead of re-electing them over and over.
“The goal of gerrymandering is not to keep folk like Jim Jordan from ever being elected, but gerrymandering allows Jim Jordan to be the most Jim Jordan he can be: the most bombastic, bomb throwing, partisan person in Congress,” said Marozzi. “He hasn’t passed a single piece of legislation in ten years. He has no real incentive to compromise because he only has to worry about a primary challenge.” If the changes work as intended the ride “safe-seats” provide legislators like Jim Jordan will be a bumpier one in the midterms.