Partisan Gerrymandering May Cause Primary Delays

On Thursday, Feb. 17, Ohio’s bipartisan redistricting commission failed yet again to produce a set of fair maps for State House and Senate districts. After presenting two sets of legislative maps to the state’s Supreme Court, both of which were rejected, the commission was given 10 days, until midnight last Thursday, to complete a third set of maps, one that adhered to the court’s restrictions. This time, they didn’t even try. The majority-Republican commission neglected to meet until the last day and turned up empty-handed, claiming that it was impossible to meet the court’s demands. Republicans’ refusal to attempt a fair redistricting map demonstrates a blatant disregard for the state’s constitution and democratic values. Beyond the prospect of another decade of horribly gerrymandered districts, the lack of fair maps poses a risk of significant delays during the 2022 election cycle.

Currently, Ohio’s open primary, which allows voters to participate without registering with a political party, is scheduled for May 3. However, if fair maps cannot be drawn in a timely manner, which at this point seems probable, it will have to be postponed. It is unclear whether individual candidates’ chances of winning their primaries, especially races which do not include an incumbent candidate, will be particularly impacted by the delay.

“I do not believe the delayed primary will have a significant impact on the outcome of the primary elections,” wrote Lorain County Democratic Chair Anthony Giardini in an email to the Review. 

He also noted that the state has historically held primaries as late as June.

“Those candidates who started slow may benefit from the additional time, but otherwise it is not a problem,” Giardini wrote.

However, the primary ballots themselves are a different story. 

“The biggest impact on the delay is the difficulty for candidates to know where exactly their area of representation will be,” said Kristin Peterson, Oberlin City Council member and first vice chair of the Lorain County Democratic Party. “At the current moment, we do not know what the districts will look like, and the deadline to file has already passed for state districts. The Board of Elections needs to know who and what will be on the ballot so that they can have ballots ready to send to military members out of the country, among all the tasks they have. Delaying the approval of districts throws the entire election system into disarray.” 

 The delay will also create barriers to entry for newer candidates. 

“As someone running for office for the first time, there are many steps that need to be completed, both legally and necessary to start up a campaign for office,” wrote Anthony Eliopoulos, a Democrat from Lorain running for State Senate District 13, in an email to the Review. “What these delays do is disincentivize new people to run for office during a time where Ohio desperately needs new leadership.”

The primary delays will almost certainly affect the general elections in favor of the Republican party. The May 3 primary date would give parties around seven months of active campaigning for their nominees before the general election. However, due to Republicans’ failure to draw fair maps, it is likely that the primary races which rely on the State House and Senate maps will have to be postponed. If that happens, it will put incumbents at even more of an advantage than they already have. Incumbents in Lorain County elections this year, many of whom are Republican, are already known to their constituents. Their challengers, who won’t officially be named until after the primary, will have to rely on a shorter-than-usual period between the primary and the general election to recruit donors, volunteers, and ultimately voters. 

“Incumbents have the advantage of already established campaign committees and the privilege to have a say in what their own district looks like,” Eliopoulos wrote. 

 For candidates who face primary challengers, the delay will be even more of a burden. Nominees who face primary opposition are tasked with garnering support from the challengers’ core supporters. Parties that are divided during the general election tend to perform worse because their voters are unwilling to unite behind a single candidate. Given the shortened period between the primary and the general election, tensions within the party are likely to be running even higher than usual come November. 

It is true that there are ways the Democratic party can mitigate the effects of the shortened post-primary window. They can, for example, pre-emptively endorse a candidate for the primary. Just last week, the Ohio Democratic Party endorsed Congressman Tim Ryan in his Senate primary against Morgan Harper. However, while this practice gives the party a longer span of time to provide support to the likely nominee in anticipation of the general election, it also gives undue power to a small group of politicos to dictate the outcome of the primary. 

Regardless of the impact of the primary delays, Republicans must be held accountable for their blatantly partisan gerrymandering efforts. 

“The failure of the Republican-controlled redistricting commission to draw constitutional maps will have an impact on the general election as it will bring to light their incompetence and arrogance as it relates to the mandate the vast majority of Ohio voters gave them when the Constitution was amended to prevent gerrymandering,” Giardini wrote. “Republicans at all levels in Ohio should pay for this anti-voter mentality.”

Eliopoulos echoes this sentiment. 

“Ohio voters sent a message in 2018 that they want a better process for district maps to be created,” he wrote. “Let’s not be mistaken, this is the Republican majority’s plan to create chaos and confusion in order to retain their majority in both chambers of the statehouse.” 

For its part, the Ohio Supreme Court promised to hold the commission in contempt if they failed to produce an adequate written explanation by Wednesday afternoon for their failure to present a set of maps. The commission filed an explanation on Wednesday, hours before the deadline, though it remains to be seen whether the court will find it sufficient. 

Holding the commission in contempt would be a start, but it is merely symbolic. The best way to hold Republicans truly accountable for their unconstitutional gerrymandering efforts is to make sure that Democrats turn out in droves to the polls this fall.