Climate Activists and Environmental Justice Advocates Join the Gerrymandering Fight in Ohio and North Carolina

In challenging district maps drawn by Republicans, they argue that partisan boundaries that give GOP candidates an advantage work to favor fossil fuel interests and harm communities of color disproportionately impacted by pollution.

The Ohio Statehouse is seen on Jan. 16, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Credit: Jason Whitman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Ohio Statehouse is seen on Jan. 16, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Credit: Jason Whitman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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Following years of setbacks for clean energy in Ohio, environmental activists in the state decided they needed to take on a bigger and more fundamental battle: democracy.

The Ohio Environmental Council has joined other activist groups in seeking to overturn the state’s new political redistricting maps, as allegedly illegal gerrymandering that will extend a veto-proof majority for Republicans in the state Legislature for years to come.

The Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments last week in the challenge to maps approved in September by the Ohio Redistricting Commission. Analysts say the redistricting gives Republicans an advantage in 65 percent of state House races and 72 percent of the state Senate races, even though only 54 percent of votes cast, on average, in statewide elections over the last decade favored the GOP.

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Environmentalists see a direct connection between skewed political representation in the Ohio state government and a string of recent laws passed in Columbus, the state capital, that favor fossil fuel production and slow renewable energy, despite polling showing the unpopularity of these moves.

“We do not have a democracy that is responding to the needs of Ohioans, whether it’s people who are fighting for health care, or workers rights or fighting for a healthy environment,” said Chris Tavenor, staff attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council. “The reason why we joined this lawsuit is because we fundamentally believe that in order for us to achieve change here in Ohio, we need a democracy that is actually functioning.”

Ohio may be the first of a wave of states where challenges to new political redistricting maps include claims about environmental protection and environmental justice. A similar challenge is before the North Carolina Supreme Court, led by the state’s chapter of the League of Conservation Voters. The lawsuits reflect a growing recognition that redistricting decisions now underway in the states, lopsidedly controlled by Republicans, are setting the stage for the defeat of environmental and climate policy at both the state and federal level for the next decade.

In both Ohio and North Carolina, the environmentalists’ challenge to the new district maps center around a claim that communities of color, which bear the worst pollution burdens in the states, are being systematically underrepresented. 

As a result, advocates for climate policy and environmental justice say that no matter how fiercely they fight for progress in the make-or-break years ahead, the odds are already being stacked against them in an arcane and often opaque process that is dominated by the party that has most closely aligned itself with the agenda of the fossil fuel industry.

Republicans Control Almost Two-Thirds of State Legislatures

Redistricting and apportionment (the process for determining how many seats each state gets in Congress) happens every 10 years, based on the decennial census data. After months of delays caused by the pandemic and data anomalies, the process began after the Census Bureau released the figures in August. So far, 18 states have completed drawing their new maps and the rest are racing to complete the job in time for the primary contests for the 2022 elections.

In most states, the drawing of the district maps is controlled by state legislators, giving incumbents every incentive to consolidate their power by manipulating the boundaries to favor their party. Such gerrymandering isn’t by any means a new tactic, but political analysts expect this round of redistricting to be more egregiously partisan than the process has been in decades.

Divide and Disempower

Republicans have control of 62 percent of state legislative chambers, and total control of state government (the state Senate and House and the governorship) in 23 states, according to tracking by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats, by contrast, only have total control in 11 states, and in six of those, they have handed redistricting power to a bipartisan independent commission. (Only three states controlled by Republicans have independent redistricting commissions: Idaho, with two U.S. House seats, and Montana and Alaska, each with one, all of which are expected to remain safely in the hands of the GOP).

As a result, Democrats have an overwhelming disadvantage in setting the political landscape, two years after President Joe Biden won election with 52 percent of the popular vote.

Inner-City Communities Bear the Worst Health Hazards 

In Ohio, environmentalists believe that the string of recent state laws hostile to clean energy can be traced directly to unrepresentative state government.

The most notorious of those laws, “House Bill 6,” in 2019, slapped a surcharge on utility customers’ bills to bail out struggling nuclear and coal plants, while gutting the state’s standards for renewable energy and energy efficiency. 

Federal prosecutors later detailed how that law resulted from what they called the largest bribery scheme in Ohio history, a $61 million effort bankrolled by Akron-based utility FirstEnergy. A corruption trial is expected to begin next year for former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican accused of taking bribes through a nonprofit in return for supporting the bailout of nuclear power plants, among other actions. 

Despite the scandal and polling last year showing 64 percent of Ohioans want to see House Bill 6 repealed, state lawmakers have only doubled down in supporting fossil fuels over clean energy. This past summer, Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, signed a new law giving county governments authority to ban large wind and solar developments. Only months earlier, Ohio lawmakers banned local governments from restricting use of natural gas; all localities in the state already are banned from limiting oil and gas production.

The Ohio Environmental Council sought to show how the make-up of the state legislature fails to represent communities that are most directly harmed by state policy that favors fossil fuels. In a state that has four oil refineries and is one of the top 10 coal-consuming states in the nation, that meant looking for communities affected by pollution. 

Callia Téllez, the group’s environmental policy fellow, conducted an analysis by superimposing the new state legislative district maps over a map of environmental health hazards in Ohio, using EJSCREEN, a peer-reviewed environmental justice mapping tool developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It showed that inner-city communities that bear the worst health hazards, overwhelmingly minority communities, have been split apart in a way that dilutes their political influence, as they are combined into larger districts with suburban and rural areas that do not experience the same health risks.

“It provides a clear visual that this is not a hypothetical concept that can be argued away,” said Téllez.

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The environmental justice analysis was included in the evidence submitted to the Ohio Supreme Court in an effort by a wide array of activist groups seeking to overturn the maps. The court will have to make a decision prior to the Feb. 2 filing deadline for Ohio’s primary elections, currently scheduled for May 3.

Ohio’s Republican State Senate President, Matt Huffman, a member of the redistricting commission, has said that developing the new maps this year was a “monumental task,” given the Census data delays. But he maintains that the results are “constitutional and compliant with Ohio law.” Huffman said those who say the maps are unfair are “special interests” that are seeking to tilt the playing field toward the Democrats.

“So-called representational fairness is just another way to describe gerrymandering, and these groups need to remember districts are won with quality candidates, issues and campaigns, not on predetermined outcomes based on a false premise of letting special interests from Washington D.C. define what is fair,” Huffman said in a statement when the maps were released. 

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, that state’s supreme court already last Wednesday agreed to delay the state’s scheduled March primary election by 10 weeks, to consider challenges to the new Republican-favoring electoral maps, including one led by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters (NCLCV).

“The same voters that are most impacted by gerrymandering and other forms of voter suppression are also most impacted by climate change and environmental injustice,” said Dustin Ingalls, spokesman for the conservation league, explaining the group’s decision to get into the redistricting fight.

Ingalls pointed to hog farming pollution as an example of how disproportionate representation has hurt North Carolinians who are facing environmental injustice. This past July, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a farm bill that fast-tracks a massive project to collect biogas for energy from 19 hog farm operations in the eastern part of the state. Although one purpose of the law is to reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane, it also curtails the opportunity for public input, including from the surrounding minority communities who have been most harmed by pollution from the lagoons, sprayfields and other waste management practices of the farms.

Ingalls argued that a large reason the problems of those communities are not getting attention is that they lack representation.

“If they had leaders in the General Assembly who reflected their needs and values, then we would get action on these issues,” he said. The NCLCV is challenging both the Congressional and state government district maps that the North Carolina General Assembly unveiled on Nov. 4. 

North Carolina recently has proved to be a true swing state in statewide elections, with then President Donald Trump just edging Biden with 49.9 percent of the vote in 2020 even while Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won with 51 percent of the vote.

But under the redistricting, Republicans, who already control eight of the state’s 13 congressional districts, would gain at least two more, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. In the state General Assembly Republicans would have an advantage in 70 of the 120 districts, according to an analysis by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which gave the map an “F” for partisan bias. 

Complex Environmental Justice Concerns

It’s not clear how important environmentalists’ claims will prove to be in the redistricting challenges, since such claims are novel and there are no explicit environmental justice provisions in the law governing redistricting in either state.

In North Carolina, the League of Conservation Voters is challenging the maps as violating the state Constitution’s free elections clause and other general voter protection provisions.

In Ohio, the groups challenging the redistricting are relying on a 2015 amendment to Ohio’s constitution, approved by 71 percent of Ohio voters, that calls for an end to partisan gerrymandering in the state. Under the amendment, the Ohio Redistricting Commission was instructed to draw district lines in which the number of districts favoring each party is proportional to the statewide preferences of voters. But the Commission, dominated by Republicans, said its new maps met the standard because the GOP have won more elections than Democrats in the state over the past decade. (The petitioners point out those wins were based on district lines drawn before partisan gerrymandering was made illegal.)

The analysis by the Ohio Environmental Council shows that the environmental justice concerns are even more complex than the issue of partisanship that the Constitutional amendment was designed to address. For example, some inner city communities in Cleveland have been divided into suburban and rural districts where Democrats are still favored to win. But that doesn’t mean their voices are being heard, the activists said.

“Their communities are diluted and divided in ways that don’t give them a representative that is from their community,” said Tavenor, the environmental council staff attorney. “Sometimes it’s difficult to even know what issue that particular community would want to be prioritized because they don’t have a district that is theirs.”