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In Court to Fight Ohio’s Gerrymandered Maps

The maps rob Black Americans of their political power and undermine the will of voters.

  • Sam Gresham
March 24, 2022

This article first appeared in The Columbus Dispatch.

It’s March.

We were supposed to have new legislative maps in September.

Instead, the Ohio Redistricting Commission has produced three sets of maps, all useless because they’re illegal.

Every time, the commission ignored the Ohio constitution. It drew district lines that gave the Republican party a substantial edge and undermined the votes of millions of Ohioans, mine included. 

I’ve lived in Ohio almost 50 years, but my family comes from Mississippi.

When my father was a young man, he had to pass a “poll test” before he could exercise his constitutional right to vote. Because he was Black, he had to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar before being allowed to cast his ballot. 

Thanks to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, made possible by decades of organizing and advocacy, Black Americans no longer have to deal with the same obstacles my father faced years ago in Mississippi.

I wish the obstacles–and our fight for the franchise–had ended there. But the truth is, the Voting Rights Act has been under assault since the moment it was enacted.

And voting rights abuses have evolved to take new, more subtle forms that evade the legislation’s reach.

One of the most powerful but least understood obstacles to voting and fair representation is gerrymandering.

When legislative districts are drawn to dilute the voices and political power of Black voters, there’s almost no need to try and keep us from the polls the outcome has already been determined by unfair maps that essentially allow politicians to choose their own voters.

Take Franklin County, home to our State Capitol and one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. But due to gerrymandering, the Black community isn’t receiving any of the benefits from this growth.

 In fact, Columbus has one of the highest levels of income inequality in Ohio.

All over Ohio, the Black community is contributing to the growth our state is experiencing, but we’re kept from having the political power necessary to get our share. This is a direct result of gerrymandering.

It’s a basic principle in a democracy that increases in population should produce increases in representation. But this has not been true for communities of color, who have continued to be packed and cracked into the same number of districts despite growth.

For example, large numbers of Black voters are routinely drawn–or “packed”–into Congresswoman Joyce Beatty’s district, with a smaller number of Black voters getting “cracked” across surrounding districts at such low numbers that candidates have no need to earn their votes to win.

Ohioans voted overwhelmingly in 2015 and 2018 to curtail these practices and require maps be drawn fairly, yet the Ohio Redistricting Commission refuses to submit legislative maps that meet the state constitution’s criteria.

The commission is undermining the will of Ohio voters while marginalizing communities of color. Their tactics may seem more subtle than the poll tests my father faced in Mississippi under Jim Crow, but they have the same outcome: robbing Black Americans of the political power that is their due. The commission’s actions must not be allowed to stand.

If history has taught us anything, it is to never take our democracy for granted. But history also teaches us to be hopeful. And I truly believe we’re standing at a precipice of creating fair systems for voting and representation that could give Black Ohioans the political power unjustly denied for so long.

What we do here in Ohio to break free of gerrymandering can be a model for the rest of the country in the fight for Black people’s full participation in American democracy. 

Sam Gresham is the chair of Common Cause Ohio and a plaintiff in Ohio Organizing Collaborative versus Ohio Redistricting Commission.