Harvey J Graff

Lost in the attention accorded to the flurry of right-wing Republican legislatures’ passing and governors’ signing blatantly partisan and extralegal redistricting bills—and, in a growing number of states, both state and federal courts ruling them unconstitutional—is “the great state of Ohio.” In North Carolina, for example, the State Supreme Court not only rule legislative redistricting unlawful, but instituted more constitutional maps. As I follow the incessant “shenanigans” (the much too soft and legally irrelevant word of the Columbus Dispatch [Editorial Board, “Our view: While your groceries go up”]) of the politically biased State Redistricting Commission. Not “shenanigans,” these are violations of the U.S. Constitution and state law. They constitute a unique and so far highly successful path of obfuscation and voter suppression.

The stage is set

In its then–acclaimed, new redistricting legislation of 2015 and 2018, the Republican-dominated legislature mandated redistricting based on U.S. Census records every decade. The new Ohio Redistricting Commission of seven, including State House and Senate majority and minority leaders, Governor, Secretary of State, and Auditor, are charged: “Every 10 years after the U.S. Census, Ohio’s 99 House districts and 33 Senate districts must be redrawn to reflect the results of the most recent Census. The Ohio Redistricting Commission is tasked with redrawing each of those legislative districts.” Congressional districts, inexplicably, are set by the State Legislature (Ohio Redistricting Commission; “Redistricting in Ohio after the 2020 Census”).

This seemingly clear and direct amendment to the State Constitution, approved by the electorate, paves the way for Ohio to become perhaps the most blatantly dishonest, nontransparent, publicly misinformed shell game, and pile of unconstitutional actions. With consistent disregard for the legislation that they themselves wrote and enacted, the five Republicans on the Commission vote in clear violation of the law. This includes the sitting Governor DeWine, Secretary of State LaRose, and Auditor Faber, not coincidentally all running for reelection.

Although unimagined from 2015 to 2018 in drafting and passage of the legislation and constitutional amendment, we now see how the Commission’s composition was rigged to contradict the Constitution on which it rested. The interrelated patterns remain concealed in their totality to local and national media. As I trace the sordid story, one overarching question stands out: To what extent is this a well-orchestrated, successful campaign of voter suppression unique in the nation, or is it a series of separate steps with a parallel result?

Taking action: Summer 2021 to Spring 2022

An observant citizen watching the beginnings of redistricting in mid-to-late summer 2021, I clearly saw the signs of what was coming. Then and later, they were unescapable. (See my “Ohio’s elected Republicans fail their public”; “Notes on current politics in Columbus and Ohio: Thoughts in response to questions from my editor”; “Texas and Florida secede from reality; Ohio imitates”; “Intel and the Ohio Way – Secrecy, deals, public neglect, myth making, and re-election campaigning”; “Columbus’ major ‘news media’ against democratic politics and the public..” )

Despite advice from concerned citizens, none of the small-d democratic advocacy groups or the Democratic national organization monitoring the irregular and inconsistent hearings on one unacceptable redistricting proposal after another took preemptive action. This included former federal Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the first to file suit months later; and the state chapters of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Not surprisingly, given its regular silence and inactivity, the Ohio Democratic Party took no role. (See my “Notes on current politics in Columbus and Ohio: Thoughts in response to questions from my editor”; “An Open Letter to the Ohio Democratic Party: Where are you and why have you lost touch with D/democracy?”; and “An Open Letter to the Ohio unDemocratic Party.”)

Throughout the fall, respondents to my recommendations to go to court sooner rather than later told me: We have to let it play out. We must testify in irregular hearings; hold rallies; write letters; make phone calls. As some predicted, they did not have to play charades with adversaries who refuse to abide by legal rules. Almost six months were wasted with inaction by not filing suit to stop the illegal delays. Holder’s group instead raised “money to keep the battles over maps out of federal courts. (See Darrel Rowland, “Capital Insider: Frank LaRose takes on Maureen O’Connor and court’s ‘liberal majority,’Columbus Dispatch, Mar. 11, 2022.)

Finally, in the new year, Holder’s group along with the others appealed the radical gerrymandering to the State Supreme Court for the first of its four rulings that three Redistricting Commission approved plans were legally unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, the swing vote in all four 4-3 rulings that the Redistricting Commission acted unconstitutionally, is a moderate Republican now publicly vilified for following the law. Condemnation includes the State’s Attorney General, who does not always follow the U.S. Constitution. (See my Letters to the Editor, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 1, 2021, and Cincinnati Enquirer, May 30, 2021 [subscribers’ only]; and “The Ohio Attorney General vs. Science, Ethics, and Law.”)

The tardy filing launched a public tragedy of incomplete actions. Ironically, in early February, in the wake of the State Supreme Court’s first rejection of Republican-approved maps, Republican State Senate leader and member of Redistricting Commission Matt Huffman commented, “I don’t see how we can conduct an election for the General Assembly and the congressmen [sic] on May 3.” He dropped his guard and admitted his plan. In direct contradiction to the Executive Director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, “Huffman suggested two primaries at great financial cost.” (See Jessie Balmert, “After Ohio Supreme Court rejects maps,” Columbus Dispatch, Feb. 9, 2002.) Almost three months later, this remains unresolved. A second primary is very likely, but its date is unknown.

The voters are confused and disaffected. Turnout at the regularly scheduled May 3 primary, especially among Democratic voters, was historically low. Democratic Party numbers were one-half that of Republican. This is successful Trumpian-style voter suppression in action, worthy of the Ohio Republican leaders who spirited this campaign of public illegality and of the six Trumpist candidates for U.S. Senator splitting the votes among them. Contrary to the muddled national media reporting, J.D. (or is J.P. or J.D. Mandel?) Vance’s primary top showing represents the power of Trumpism. It is not “the iron grip of Trump on the Party,” but the combined vote-splintering of six Trumpists. Trump’s endorsement, as in other states, undoubtedly came at a high price to Peter Thiel, Vance’s billionaire bankroller. At the same time, the one anti-Trump candidate polled a respectable 20 percent of the votes.

The Republican-dominated Redistricting Commission resent virtually the same unconstitutional district maps approved by the same 5-2 partisan vote. The State Supreme Court rejected them again by a 4-3 vote with O’Connor deciding. The Governor’s son, Justice Pat DeWine, voted for his father’s plan four times, refusing reasonable and respectful calls to recuse himself.

Republicans in state government and the legislature cannot control their outrage at Chief Justice O’Connor’s repeated decision to follow the law. They call her a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and a “liberal.” With no sense of self-contradiction, let alone irony, Secretary of State LaRose “accused the bipartisan majority of ‘court-ordered gerrymandering’ for focusing on a constitutional provision approved by Ohio voters that requires the districts to be politically balanced on a statewide basis.” Equally fallaciously and unself-consciously, he claimed that the Court’s challenges are “‘part of a larger strategy to create chaos and confusion while deep-pocketed out of state interests bankroll an endless parade of partisan litigation.’” (See Darrel Rowland, “Capitol Insider: Frank LaRose takes on Maureen O’Connor and court’s ‘liberal majority,’Columbus Dispatch, Mar. 11, 2022.)

Moderate opinion columnists write, “Ohio’s failed redistricting commission has got to go” (Thomas Suddes, Columbus Dispatch, Feb. 27, 2022). State Democrats assert that the constitutional process was “hijacked” (Jessie Balmert, “GOP Oks Ohio legislature maps,” Columbus Dispatch, Mar. 28, 2022). Progressive OpEd contributor and attorney Jack D’Aurora warns, “Politicians trying to take down Maureen O’Connor should think twice” (Columbus Dispatch, Apr. 13, 2022 [never posted to website]).

In the muddled middle is the Columbus Dispatch’s never informed Editorial Board, which muttered off-point, “While your groceries go up, DeWine, LaRose, Cupp waste millions to keep power” (Apr. 15, 2022). There is no connection between the estimated $25 million cost of a second primary and the price of groceries.

At the same time, Ohio Republicans speak publicly about impeaching Chief Justice O’Connor. They cannot cite relevant justification or legal grounds. Threatened charges never materialize. (See Haley DeMiller, Jessie Balmert, and Laura A. Bischoff, “Ohio Republicans discussing impeachment,” Columbus Dispatch, Mar. 18, 2022.)

In a class of his own, Republican state representative and majority floor leader Bill Seitz whines like a teenager, “4 Supreme Court Justices should be ‘benched.’” Ignorantly branding the four who supported the law his party enacted, he is unaware that as sitting members of the State Supreme Court, they are already “benched.” His weak command of written English and basic logic should have disqualified him from holding office. (See Seitz, “Top Ohio House Republican leader: 4 Supreme Court Justices should be ‘benched,’Columbus Dispatch, Apr. 20, 2022; also Bob Paduchik, “Republican Party chair: If Ohio justice can not ‘stomach’ critics, she should leave job,” Columbus Dispatch, Mar. 31, 2022; compare with my “Civics tests should be required to hold public office.”) These “leaders” resemble a circus of clowns whose unfact-checked and unedited screeds the Columbus Dispatch rushes into press.

Despite ruling gerrymandered Republican redistricting maps unconstitutional four times, unlike other state supreme courts, Ohio’s never ordered a fairer map to be enacted into law. Despite threatening the Commissioners with contempt of court, that hearing was never held. The Governor’s son did say he would recuse himself from that trial. The Court changed its mind, giving no explanations. Thus, there are no consequences for Republicans’—including the Governor running for re-election and the Secretary of State--illegal behavior.

After the Court’s third unconstitutional ruling, the Redistricting Commission turned to two outside “redistricting mapping” consultants, one a nationally recognized University of Florida political scientist; the other the well-known, partisan Republican president of National Demographics Corporation, who has been censured by judges in other courts for his actions. Their contracts paid them almost $50,000 each.

Working on livestreamed video for “transparency,” unlike the Commission itself, they each developed separate maps. Republican Douglas Johnson’s proposal favored his party more than the 2020 data but less than the Redistricting Commission’s maps did. The Democrat’s maps hewed closer to the 2020 Census.

By a vote of 4 to 3 (with Auditor Faber shifting sides), the Redistricting Commission ignored its own and the Democrat’s highly paid consultants’ maps, and resubmitted very slightly “tweaked” unconstitutional maps. Rejecting the maps for the fourth time, the Court majority wrote, “Although the commission appeared to be engaging in a more collaborative process…, the final day leading up to the adoption of the third revised plan revealed anything but that.”

They added that “Senate President Matt Huffman’s focus on protecting incumbent lawmakers slowed down mapmaking” (Balmert and Bischoff, “Ohio Supreme Court rejects 4th set of legislative maps,” Columbus Dispatch, Apr. 14, 2022 [not on website]). Illogically and against all evidence, one Republican justice asserted that the majority of the court failed to follow the state constitution and removed an incentive for Democratic compromise. In fact, the opposite is true.

From mid-summer 2021 to late April 2022, the Republican-dominated Redistricting Commission unwaveringly contradicted its own enabling legislation and the state constitution. With the May 3 primary election on the doorstep, the Democrats finally appealed to the federal Court for the Southern District of Ohio Eastern Division.

Adding nothing constructive to the critical situation, the three-judge panel declared that it would act in late May if the state did not by that time, three full weeks after the substantially invalid primary. (See Susan Tebben, “Ohio federal court plans to intervene without legislative redistricting plan by May,” Ohio Capital Journal, Apr. 21, 2022; Balmert, “Ohio Republicans draft congressional map days before Democrats,” Columbus Dispatch, Apr. 26, 2022.) They indicate that they will then institute one of the redistricting maps that the State Supreme Court previously ruled unconstitutional.

Two days after the May primary, the Redistricting Commission met again briefly. For the fifth time, they approved the unconstitutional maps (4-3), barely meeting the State Supreme Court’s order. Even Secretary of State LaRose, who voted in favor of the unconstitutional maps, expressed concern about the timing for a possible second primary. The call for the State court to finally hold at least four of the Republicans including the governor in contempt mounts. (Jessie Balmert and Haley BeMiller, “Ohio Redistricting Commission passes statehouse maps already struck down by Supreme Court,” Columbus Dispatch, May 6, 2022; Susan Tebben, “Ohio Redistricting Commission members maintain innocence on contempt,” Ohio Capital Journal, May 9, 2022.)

Redistricting: Success or failure?

Ohio now hangs between its significantly useless May 3 primary and an undetermined, still–uncertain, expensive second primary perhaps for August during popular summer holiday season. (I have wagered privately that it will take place in November after the general election.)

The question remains: Did “redistricting,” if we call it that, or perhaps un- or anti-districting, succeed or fail? Literally if superficially, it completely failed. But I argue that in a larger, more consequential frame, it is a great Republican success, possibly the greatest voter suppression effort of the 2022 mid-term election cycle.

Minimally, the certainty and belief in the legitimacy and credibility of the primary and by extension the entire 2022 election cycle is called into question. Confusion is rampant. The state’s ability to conduct a fair polling is challenged between mis- and dis-information, uncertain dates, lack of poll workers, and extraordinary costs. This is consistent with the Republican national playbook since at least the 2016 presidential election if not 2000 or earlier. But emphatically since 2020.

To take a personal case in point: My household has no Democrats running in the May primary for either state or congressional representative, because the boundaries of districts remain unknown. With no final district maps, the partisan Commission member and Secretary of State LaRose ordered my county Board of Elections to list erroneously a sitting Democrat in Congress on my ballot even though I am not legally in her district or her in mine. My complaint prompted the board rhetorically to throw up their arms in surrender to the powers that be.

Ohio voters are disaffected. Turnout was very low even for an off-year primary, Democratic turnout in Democratic-leaning counties was most dramatically affected. The Republican campaign for voter suppression succeeds without the dangers that other Republican-dominated states confront when legislative and gubernatorial redistricting are challenged in the courts.

This successful campaign is aided by weak and inconsistent media coverage. This ranges from USA Today/Gannett newspapers’ practice of printing radically distorted and partisan “opinion essays” by right-wing politicians with no fact-checking or caveats, to a more general inability to cut to the heart of issues, and emphasize unconstitutionality, illegality, and contradiction of stated intentions.

Sadly, perhaps predictably, the confusion and tardiness of semi-organized opposition, including the absence of the Ohio Democratic Party, eases the suppressors’ tasks. The halting, incomplete actions of the State Supreme and federal District Courts greased the Republican wheels, contrary to Republicans’ ridiculous criticisms of the courts.

Democrats and the media complain about the financial costs. Far more consequential and lasting are the assaults on voters’ confidence, opportunities, and constitutional rights, indeed the electorate itself. Uncertainty, confusion, and delays have a cumulative impact, directly and indirectly, literally and figuratively, actively and passively.

2021-2022 in Ohio is a great Republican success. I cannot answer a final question: Is the Republican campaign planned or haphazard? It may not matter. On one hand, it is difficult to find clear evidence of cogent, long-term conception, planning, and execution. On another, the tardiness of the opposition, weak response of the media, the legal failure of Governor and State Legislature, and refusal of the courts to mandate constitutional corrective action could not all be predicted. In the words of the late 20th century, this is a “perfect storm,” both predictable and not. Regardless, democracy, constitutionality, and public participation all decline, the Republican playbook more deeply etched in the large shadow of number 45.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. His Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies is published this summer. His essays appear in Inside Higher Education, Times Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Academe, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current, Columbus Free Press, and other outlets.