Following the 2020 census, Ohio became victim of one of the nation's most relentless gerrymandering efforts: Republicans enacted rigged maps, judges struck them down for violating the state constitution, and Republicans simply passed new gerrymanders—a process they repeated over and over again until they ran out the clock and ensured Ohio would use illegal districts last year. But one Republican official became an unlikely hero by pushing back against her own party's assault on democracy, and she's at it once more with a plan to end the GOP's power to pass unfair maps for good.
That reformer is Maureen O'Connor, who until this year was chief justice of Ohio's Supreme Court and had repeatedly sided with the court's three Democratic members and against her trio of Republican colleagues to strike down these flawed maps—five times for state legislature and twice for Congress. O'Connor and her fellow advocates are still finalizing their reform proposal, but they are planning to use a ballot initiative in 2024 to create a truly independent redistricting commission in place of Ohio's broken bipartisan board that tilts heavily to the GOP.
Similar redistricting reforms in other states, such as one Michigan adopted in 2018, have entailed placing a citizen-led initiative on the ballot to circumvent opposition from GOP lawmakers and create a commission on which elected officials, party operatives, and lobbyists cannot serve or hand-pick commissioners. Instead, ordinary citizens, including independents and members of both parties, would be selected through a nonpartisan process to draw maps while following statistical requirements to treat both parties equally, along with other good-government criteria.
This new effort is urgently needed because previous attempts at reform that Ohio adopted in the past decade have altogether failed to live up to their promises. After voter-led efforts to improve redistricting failed in 2012, reformers compromised with the Republican-dominated legislature, which passed bipartisan amendments that voters approved in 2015 and 2018. These reforms ensured that a bipartisan commission of elected officials—with a GOP majority—would both control legislative redistricting and also serve as a backup if lawmakers failed to pass a congressional map with support from both parties.
However, some observers at the time argued that the newly adopted rules were fatally flawed because they left elected officials in charge of a convoluted process that included a gaping loophole that ultimately enabled the Republican majority to pass maps without bipartisan support—precisely what transpired after the most recent census. The new system was problematic in another way: It left enforcement of their vaguely worded anti-gerrymandering provisions up to the state Supreme Court, an elected body with a Republican majority.
O'Connor was the only reason that court didn't simply rubber-stamp the GOP's new maps, but the rulings she issued with her Democratic colleagues were always vulnerable to the outcomes of future judicial elections. That's precisely why Republicans delayed endlessly in the face of those seven adverse rulings, and the foot-dragging paid off.
Age limits prevented O'Connor from seeking re-election last year, and the GOP's victories at the top of the ticket helped Republican hardliners sweep the Supreme Court races in November and gain a 4-3 majority on the bench. With the court no longer serving as a bulwark against gerrymandering and instead likely to uphold new gerrymanders, a different approach is needed to ensure fair maps.
In the decade since Ohio's last citizen-led effort failed by a wide margin, opposition to gerrymandering has gained much greater salience with voters nationwide. Several other states—even conservative bastions like Missouri and Utah—have approved ballot initiatives when voters have been given a chance to weigh in. However, just getting these measures onto the ballot has been a significant challenge in itself. Ohio organizers must gather at least 413,000 voter signatures, including an amount equivalent to 5% of the last vote for governor in 44 of Ohio's 88 counties.
If all goes as planned, though, the effort could see a redistricting commission go before voters in November of next year. However, Republican lawmakers have recently reintroduced a constitutional amendment to raise the threshold for passage of future voter-led amendments from the current simple majority to 60% instead. A lead proponent of that measure, which could appear on the ballot later this year, privately admitted it's intended to thwart efforts to reform redistricting and protect abortion rights.
But fortunately for fair maps advocates, that plan would also require voter approval, which is no sure thing. In fact, voters in Arkansas and South Dakota just last year rejected similar Republican efforts to require voter supermajorities for ballot initiatives. If reform supporters can convince voters to protect their existing power to amend Ohio's governing document and then to remove authority over redistricting from self-interested politicians, Ohio could finally have much fairer maps for the first time in many decades.