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Analysis

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.