In 2004, Ohio became notorious for the deliberate suppression of Black voters. The racist disenfranchisement, called “Ohio’s first poll tax,” may have given the state’s 20 electoral votes to George W. Bush. — without which he would have lost to John Kerry.
Not much has changed in 15 years. Only two of Ohio’s 16 Congresspeople are Black. The A. Philip Randolph Institute, a constituency group of the AFL-CIO that represents the interests of Black workers, is a plaintiff in a 2018 lawsuit filed over the way Ohio’s Congressional districts are constructed.
Plaintiffs accused the Republican-dominated state legislature of gerrymandering — by definition “to divide or arrange (a territorial unit) into election districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage.” (Merriam-Webster)
The legislators redrew the Congressional district map in 2011, with the intended result giving Republicans 12 out of 16 possible seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The lawsuit alleges that Democratic Party voters were either “packed” into a few Democratic strongholds or “cracked” into other districts where their voting strength was diluted.
In drawing up the 9th District — nicknamed “snake on the lake” — legislators created a long, narrow district that runs 141 miles along Lake Erie and connects Toledo with part of Cleveland. This forced Marcy Kaptur of Toledo and Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland, both of whom have progressive reputations, to run against each other in the Democratic primary. Kaptur won.
On May 3, a panel of three federal judges ordered Ohio to redraw the map by June 14, stating it “dilutes the votes of Democratic voters by packing and cracking them into districts that are so skewed toward one party that the electoral outcome is predetermined.” (New York Times, May 3)
To subvert their political rivals, Republicans overlooked provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The pack-and-crack strategy negatively impacted Black voters, among the many who reject the more blatant bigotry of Trump’s party.
Another case in Michigan
The practice of gerrymandering is by no means unique to Ohio. A week before the Ohio ruling, a three-judge panel (not the same federal judges who ruled in Ohio’s lawsuit) unanimously concluded that gerrymandering was “of historical proportions” in Michigan. The “predominate purpose … was to subordinate the interests of Democratic voters and entrench Republicans in power.” (Detroit News, April 25)
Michigan was ordered to redraw the 2011 map of U.S. Congressional and state legislative districts by Aug. 1 and to hold special early elections in 2020 for some state Senate positions.
As in Ohio, the lawsuit primarily focused on “political” gerrymandering — deliberate advantaging of Republican Party candidates.
However, racism is an undeniable factor in Michigan as well.
As University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald notes: “If more minorities were shoved into that district than were needed in order to elect a minority candidate of choice, then the district becomes suspect. Then race was used as a predominant factor in the creation of that district.” (WDET, June 28, 2018) When this happens it is actually a violation of the Voting Rights Act, even though the act has been cited by Republicans as a reason for creating Black-majority districts.
The long 14th Congressional District contains parts of two counties, connecting all the Black-majority communities in southeast Michigan from Pontiac to Detroit. The district bypasses adjoining communities that are predominantly white. Michigan’s only African-American Congressperson, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, serves that district.
High court subverts will of voters
In both Ohio and Michigan, activists have opposed gerrymandering through ballot initiatives.
Voters Not Politicians enlisted scores of volunteers to put Proposal 2 on the 2018 Michigan ballot, collecting over half a million signatures. That proposal was to create an independent commission to redraw the Congressional map after the 2020 U.S. Census.
The measure passed with over 60 percent support — 2.5 million votes.
Ohio’s anti-gerrymandering ballot initiative, Issue 1, passed during the May 2018 primary election, with a stunning 75 percent voting in favor. The initiative creates new terms for the next remapping of voter districts, giving the minority party a greater voice in the process.
Ohio and Michigan Republicans ignored not only the opinion of the judges but the will of the voters and appealed the court rulings to the U.S. Supreme Court. They asked for a stay of orders to redraw the district maps until after the Supreme Court hears earlier gerrymandering cases from Maryland and North Carolina.
The high court agreed to stay the lower court rulings in both states. This means the 2020 Congressional elections will likely be held with the current maps intact.
Unfinished struggle against racism, for democratic rights
In other words, racist, right-wing schemes to disenfranchise voters will continue for the time being — and perhaps will be upheld by the current Supreme Court.
Unfinished struggle against racism, for democratic rights
This struggle over a basic democratic right to vote is not occurring in a vacuum. Right now a record number of progressive women of color, some who even identify as socialists, are being elected to office. Voter suppression is a political tool to counteract and contain this significant trend.
This movement for democratic rights is taking place within the narrow context of bourgeois electoral politics — Democrats vs. Republicans. But while the form is regressive, its content is wholly progressive — a still unfinished struggle against outright disenfranchisement. All genuine anti-racists need to pay attention.