The lawsuit filed by two Youngstown residents against the Ohio Redistricting Commission, its five Republican members and Attorney General Dave Yost claiming the new congressional and state Senate districts as well as countywide voting in Mahoning violate the federal Voting Rights Act seems to target largely the wrong people.
The commission voted 5-2 Sept. 15 in favor of state Senate districts, including one that keeps Mahoning and Columbiana counties together and adds Carroll County to it.
“The black residents of Youngstown and Warren are also a sufficiently large and geographically compact population to constitute an influential vote in a single-member Senate district,” the lawsuit from the Rev. Kenneth L. Simon and Helen Youngblood, two Youngstown community activists, reads.
That’s true, and suing the commission and its five Republican members over Voting Rights Act violations is a compelling argument.
As the lawsuit reads: “The state not only intentionally decided to ignore race and the Voting Rights Act, but also previous judicial findings of official racial discrimination in legislative redistricting in Ohio.”
Youngstown and Warren are the most-populous cities in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, respectively. They also are home to most of the two counties’ African-American residents.
Ask Youngstown residents if they identify more with residents of Warren or Columbiana County, and most will say the former. Ask those in southern Mahoning County, and you’ll get a different answer.
There is justification for the claim that the new Republican-approved state Senate districts disenfranchised black voters in Youngstown. There’s also a valid question as to why wasn’t this lawsuit filed a decade ago when Mahoning was put in a district with Columbiana?
The Simon and Youngblood lawsuit, filed by noted attorney Percy Squire, against the commission, its GOP members and Yost, who isn’t a commission member but represents the state as attorney general, also seeks federal relief for congressional redistricting and for the voting system in Mahoning County.
However, the commission never voted on congressional redistricting and has nothing to do with Mahoning County elections.
The commission also was sued in the Ohio Supreme Court twice over congressional redistricting. The court this week removed members of the commission in their official capacities as members from both lawsuits because that body never even met to discuss congressional redistricting.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Bob Cupp remain defendants because of their elected positions — not because they are commission members. Huffman and Cupp largely drove the congressional district maps in the state Legislature. Like new state House and Senate maps, the congressional map favors the Republican party.
The Simon-Youngblood lawsuit argues Republicans put Mahoning in a district with Trumbull, Columbiana, Carroll, Jefferson Harrison, Belmont, Noble and Monroe and all but four townships in Washington County, which “will result in illegal and unconstitutional dilution of the black vote” in Youngstown. That’s because there are few African-Americans in that district outside of Youngstown and Warren.
Instead, Mahoning should have been in a district with “more racially diverse” populations in nearby counties such as Stark, Summit and Cuyahoga, the lawsuit contends.
An African-American has never been elected to Congress to represent the Mahoning Valley, though there was a better chance of that happening in the existing district — which includes most of Mahoning, Trumbull and Summit counties — than the new one.
But the lawsuit should have named Republicans in the state Legislature who voted for the maps rather than the redistricting commission.
Even more confusing is the plaintiffs’ decision to sue the commission, its members and Yost over elections of Mahoning County officeholders. The lawsuit contends those elections violate the Voters Rights Act as Mahoning elects countywide officeholders through countywide votes.
That has resulted in the lack of a black countywide elected officeholder in Mahoning’s history.
The lawsuit states the “use of at-large elections in Mahoning County enhances the opportunity for discrimination against blacks due to racially polarized voting.”
About 16 percent of Mahoning’s population is black; 42 percent of Youngstown’s population is black.
The lawsuit reads: “Blacks in Youngstown bear the effects of discrimination in such areas as education, employment and health, which hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process as evidenced by the record-setting murder rate in Youngstown.”
Nearly every county in Ohio has at-large elections.
While there is an argument this denies fair representation for minorities, this has nothing to do with the redistricting commission or state government.
The plaintiffs will “file a separate motion for temporary and preliminary and equitable relief” for the county issue.
Hopefully it’s clearer than the lawsuit.
Skolnick covers politics for The Vindicator and the Tribune Chronicle.
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