Last week, in a woefully underreported turn of events, a grassroots voter organization in Michigan earned a critical district court victory in the fight for fair redistricting laws. The organization, Voters Not Politicians, has been working since 2017 to unravel the mess of gerrymandering, a practice stubbornly entrenched in Michigan’s political landscape. Its efforts have mostly focused on creating an independent, non-partisan commission to draw congressional boundaries, which would take the reins from the biased Republican State Legislature.
Their reform measure, which proposed an amendment to the Michigan State Constitution, passed decisively in 2018 with a 61 percent majority. Unsurprisingly, Republicans responded with an onslaught of legal challenges. Now, roughly a year later, it appears that Voters Not Politicians have weathered the storm of litigation, and its proposed redistricting committee will become a reality. The final breakthrough was when Janet Neff, a Bush-era federal court appointee, rejected an absurd plea against the amendment, in which Republicans claimed that the independent committee would impinge on their rights to free speech and party association.
Gerrymandering — the almost entirely Republican practice of drawing outlandish, nonsensical boundaries around congressional districts in order to solidify a partisan majority — became a manipulative force in electoral politics after Republicans claimed a sweeping majority of state legislatures in 2010. For context, Republicans claimed their largest state legislature majority since the Great Depression. Since then, the Republican Party has used gerrymandering as a weapon for what is essentially codified voter suppression.
As many Oberlin students already know, Ohio is no stranger to gerrymandering. In May of this year, judges found that Ohio’s congressional districts were unfairly drawn and heavily favored Republicans. The judges ordered a new map be drawn by the next month, a triumphant moment for Ohio’s democratic process. Sadly, though, in predictable fashion, the Supreme Court ruled against state Democrats, preventing them from drawing a new map before 2022 at the earliest.
Though Ohio’s congressional districts aren’t gerrymandered to the same extent as states like Michigan or North Carolina, it’s certainly true that the district boundaries don’t follow any discernible logic apart from strategic muscling. One particularly beastly Ohio district — the 9th district that sits just north of Oberlin and includes Lorain, Toledo, and parts of Cleveland — is nicknamed the “Snake on the Lake” because of its long, thin shape.
The Supreme Court’s decision means that grassroots efforts like Voters Not Politicians are likely to be the most viable option for undoing gerrymandering. In its decision against Ohio Democrats, the Court essentially acknowledged the existence of unfair and manipulative districting in several states, but determined that federal courts would not be the body to address the problem. Given the Republican majority on the bench, the decision is not surprising.
Ohio’s congressional map is unconstitutional — the original federal court ruling is enough to confirm this — but without any available avenues for judicial recourse, the problem becomes nearly impossible to address. The way Ohio’s districts are currently drawn ensures a longstanding conservative majority and undermines any hope of a progressive congressional swing in the state.
That’s why the best approaches to addressing gerrymandering in Ohio, as well as in other states, will have to circumvent established processes entirely. It is apparently impossible for state legislatures to fairly redistrict, so setting up an independent commission, like what Voters Not Politicians accomplished in Michigan, is an ideal end-goal. And the way to get there is through state-level action and grassroots efforts.
One of Voters Not Politicians’ organizers, Nancy Wang, describes the group as “political novices,” and yet they were able to maneuver against a party of experienced political operators. This is the kind of change needed desperately in Ohio and the rest of the country.