Attorneys for voting rights groups argued Monday that Ohio Republicans' goal was to lock in a significant majority when they redrew the state's congressional map, as the trial opened in a federal lawsuit against state officials who controlled the redistricting.
Democratic organizations, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and others have filed suit against Republican state officials, asserting that the redistricting was "an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander" that violates voters' rights to democratically select their representatives. Attorneys for the Republican officials fired back against the allegations Monday, saying the map resulted from a bipartisan compromise.
The suit could result in new district maps for the 2020 elections to the U.S. House of Representatives.
"This is about real voters and real people," attorney Alora Thomas of the American Civil Liberties Union told a three-judge panel that is overseeing the case.
She said since elections under the new map began in 2012, 59 of 64 U.S. House seats were won with at least 55 percent of the vote. Many margins were much higher. Thomas said even as Democrats flipped seats in other states to regain a U.S. House majority in 2018, Ohio Republicans continued to hold their 12-4 majority.
And that, she said, was the goal of redrawing the map.
Attorneys for Republicans said the map resulted from compromise with Democrats and noted that each party lost one seat after reapportionment reduced Ohio's U.S. House delegation because of population shifts in the 2010 census. The delegation went from 13-5 Republican to 12-4.
"This is called democracy in action," said attorney Phil Strach. He added that both parties supported "incumbency protection" — or making it more likely an incumbent will win — because that benefits all Ohioans by giving their delegation more clout in Washington.
He said Ohioans have been voting Republican this decade, which has also seen GOP control of the both the executive and legislative branches in the state.
Anyone who thinks the federal courts can "fix polarization" in the country's politics "is sadly mistaken," he added.
The trial in U.S. district court in Cincinnati will last about two weeks. Among the potential witnesses is Republican former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.
Besides organizations, the plaintiffs also include Democratic voters in GOP-held districts.
After recognizing the some three dozen attorneys in his courtroom, Judge Timothy Black joked that it was like a bar association meeting.
One of the state's arguments is that the lawsuit is untimely, with the next census only a year away. The ACLU has said the challenge to the current 10-year map was made last year because the legal landscape has changed after other legal rulings addressing partisan gerrymandering. A North Carolina case is before the U.S. Supreme Court this month.
Voting rights groups say Ohioans shouldn't have to wait until after another census to get fairly drawn districts.