Manipulation of electoral districts has been a tool of American politics since at least the early 1800s. In today’s America, this strategy is as prevalent, or perhaps more so, as it ever was. Since the 2016 election in the United States, questions of election integrity have become more prevalent in the minds of many Americans. This November, Ohio will be voting for their representatives to the state and federal government based on districts which have been deemed unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court.
Willful ignorance of the will of Ohio’s voters and intentional actions to undermine their ability to be fairly represented in their government is a clear violation of the spirit of democracy and representative government in the United States. The recent Ohio redistricting process represents an extension of electoral map manipulation from simply a shady political tool to a full effort at thinly veiled intentional shift towards a less democratic government, a process known as democratic backsliding.
It might look from the outside like Ohio has taken some action to repair its historical legacy of unfair districting. The appearance of democratic improvement, however, does not always mean real progress, and in no way precludes the possibility of democratic backsliding. Democratic-seeming actions can sometimes serve to cover for shadier, undemocratic tactics. In 2015, a majority of Ohio voters approved the creation of the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which is designed to ensure that Ohio’s citizens are divided into fairly drawn districts when voting for their representatives in government.
The Ohio Redistricting Commission includes members from both major political parties (though the Republicans outnumber the Democrats 5-2), is required to provide opportunities for public comment on its drawing process, and was marketed as a means by which to bring increased transparency and fairness to the redistricting process. This looked, at the time, like a positive step towards improved accountability for those drawing electoral maps and more accurate democratic representation for Ohio’s voters. In practice, however, this has not had the result that the voters imagined it might.
Following the 2020 Census, the Ohio Redistricting Commission was put to the test for the first time. Unfortunately, it seemed to fail. Despite public commentary being allowed and a bipartisan commission being in place, the commission seemed to be unable, or rather unwilling, to produce a fair map. Multiple sets of maps drawn by the commission were ruled by the Ohio Supreme Court to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered. In April, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio Eastern Division set a May 28 deadline for the creation of a set of fair maps. With this ruling, Republicans on the Redistricting Commission were given the ability to essentially wait out the clock by avoiding creating a fair map until it was too late and the unconstitutional ones would have to take effect.
In May 2022, the district court issued a ruling that time had run out to choose maps before the primary, and the existing maps would have to stand. Despite the fact that this set of maps had been twice deemed unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court, they would nonetheless be the ones to determine Ohio’s districts until the maps are redrawn in 2024. The consequences will, however, last beyond 2024. State Senators in Ohio, for example, serve for four year terms. Even if maps are fairly redrawn in two years, many Ohioans will still be represented by Senators elected based on unconstitutional ones. Despite its promises and a long, drawn out mapping process, the Ohio Redistricting Commission failed to provide Ohioans with a fair and constitutional set of maps to be governed by.
In contemporary politics, democracy tends to diminish not in one flashy moment of total upheaval, but rather by more gradual means. Unfairly manipulated Congressional districts are a prime example of a tool for undermining free and fair elections without the need for day-of-election manipulation. Cloaked methods of democratic backsliding such as this one are often harder to notice, and many people may not realize just how dangerous they are. While this catastrophe in Ohio has been widely publicized, it still might pass as a sneaky tactic in a nation where recent data shows that few people actually pay very much attention at all to the redistricting process in their states.
The public feedback processes put in place by the Commission allowed organized grassroots support for fair districting to emerge. Strong democracy requires that the public can speak freely and be heard by their government. By allowing those in the public who are aware and interested enough to get involved to offer feedback to the Redistricting Commission, the impression of a more open, receptive, and legitimately democratic proceeding is given. Looks, however, can be deceiving.
In reality, Republican leadership in the state seems to have fully intended to ignore both the will of the people. They also seem completely willing to act against the judgment of the Ohio Supreme Court in order to secure maps which give them an electoral advantage until the next redistricting process begins, several years down the road. This assurance of a disproportionately friendly legislature and an ability to circumvent the court when it rules unfavorably creates a government where the party in power has a dangerous amount of power. Shutting out the minority like this is inherently undemocratic.
If the ostensibly bipartisan Redistricting Commission has the ability to push through districting maps which expressly violate the state’s Constitution and which undermine the express will of the voters, what kind of a precedent does that set? While on the surface, unfair congressional mapmaking may not seem incredibly dangerous, it certainly leads to dangerous consequences. Not only does it result in an elected government where not all citizens are equally represented, but it also represents a trend towards more extreme usage of the existing structures of state democracy to deconstruct the very structures that keep the democracy functioning as it should. Despite the best intentions of the voters, Republican members of the Ohio government subverted the systems put in place to restrain them in order to serve their own interest in maintaining party power.