As states look to strengthen their election systems heading into the 2020 election, federal courts are handing down rulings that could significantly distract from their efforts, if not alter the electoral landscape altogether. Among the recent rulings include orders to redraw district maps in Ohio, Mississippi, Michigan, and Maryland that overrode the will of the people expressed through their legislators and imposed the will of the courts, meaning significant changes to state legislature and Congressional districts in the 2020 election.
Today, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ruled in Ohio A. Philip Randolph Inst. v. Householder that the Congressional maps for the entire Ohio delegation were an “unconstitutional gerrymander” and must be redrawn prior to the 2020 election. “Accordingly, we declare Ohio’s 2012 map an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, enjoin its use in the 2020 election, and order the enactment of a constitutionally viable replacement,” the judges wrote. In 2018, Ohioans passed a ballot measure that would change the redistricting process, but it wouldn’t go into effect until after the 2020 Census. The fact that Ohio must now redraw maps prior to the 2020 election, only to redraw once the Census completes, should worry ballot-integrity advocates as this process will clearly distract attention from securing our elections, risk confusing voters and burdening election officials, and focus on engaging in partisan maneuvering.
The recent ruling, Thomas v. Bryant, in Mississippi by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is centered on the 22nd Senate District, which the court ruled should be redrawn because it does not provide voters an “equal opportunity” in elections. The district includes rural and majority African-American parts of Jackson, into predominantly white suburbs of Madison County. The district, with a 51% African-American voting age population, is represented by a Republican. Redrawing this district will undoubtedly affect neighboring districts, which will then be redrawn following the 2020 Census.
In Michigan, a broader redistricting plan has been ordered for 2020. A federal appeals court ruled in League of Women Voters of Michigan v. Benson that seven state senate districts, eleven state house districts, as well as nine Congressional districts, five of which are held by Democrats with the remaining four by Republicans, are to be redrawn. As Michigan’s state government is divided between a Republican Legislature and a Democratic Governor, this could bring about significant challenges reaching an agreement on new districts.
In Maryland, the 6th Congressional District is under scrutiny and may be redrawn prior to the 2020 election. The 6th district, held by Republican Roscoe Bartlett for over 20 years, was redrawn under the tenure of Governor Martin O’Malley. In his own words, O’Malley sought to “create a district where the people would be more likely to elect a Democrat than a Republican, yes, this was clearly my intent.” The challenge to Maryland’s 6th District, Lamone v. Benisek, is currently pending before the Supreme Court.
All of these cases represent efforts–mostly successful ones–to supplant the will of the people expressed through their legislators with the will of the courts, often through the adoption of new legal theories that did not exist at the time when the maps were drawn nearly 10 years ago.