David: The state of Ohio is moving steadily to the right. Its draconian abortion ban has no exceptions for rape or incest, which would have been nearly unthinkable until very recently. Last month, Ohio's ban forced a 10-year-old victim of rape to travel out of the state to end that pregnancy. How did Ohio, formerly a swing state that voted for President Obama twice, shift so decisively to the right? That's the subject of a report in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer, a longtime staff writer. Jane, you've been a political reporter for a while based in Washington. What drew you to this deep dive into Ohio politics?
Jane: Well, Ohio has been seen forever as the bellwether state in America. What happens there is very important determining presidential elections, and also in giving us a temperature on what's happening in the country.
David: Now, a lot of change seems to be happening there. We thought of it always as a swing state for the longest time and now it's solidly in Republican control. To what extent are voters changing their opinions ideologically and to what extent is this due to other factors like redistricting?
Jane: Well, this was what was so interesting to me, was that the state has a reputation for having relatively moderate slightly conservative voters. It's not an extreme state. It was a state that went for Obama twice and then went for Trump twice. What's interesting is it's legislating out of its state legislature in a way that a study found was more conservative than South Carolina. The government seems to be out of kilter with the population.
David: What are the numbers of voters supporting each party, how does it cut and how skewed is the representation?
Jane: The numbers vary, but it's roughly divided slightly more Republican than democratic. I think it's 54% Republican to 46% Democratic on average over the last 10 years.
David: Now, for your piece you talk with a fascinating figure in Ohio politics, a political analyst and a politician named David Pepper. Who is he?
Jane: David Pepper turns out to have been-- He was the former Democratic Chairman of Ohio, of the party there. He was a former city councilman in Cincinnati. He is a man obsessed with one issue.
David: What is that?
David: Gerrymandering happens everywhere. It happens on both sides, by the way.
Jane: It does.
David: Why is this such a big deal in Ohio?
Jane: Well, what's happened is it's changed the whole direction of the state while nobody's been paying any attention. The thing about, and David Pepper is the first to admit this, the thing about state politics, state house politics and things like gerrymandering, is they're eye-glazingly dull. [chuckles] It's processes that only the most avid can follow or even want to follow. Nobody even knows the name of the people who's their own state representative. He's one of those people who has been paying attention. What he's seeing is something that he considers a complete meltdown of democracy. That is the way the state was gerrymandered very purposefully has changed the whole course of history there.
David: Jane, David Pepper wrote a book called Laboratories of Autocracy. Tell me about that.
Jane: In his desperation to try to get attention to this issue of gerrymandering, David Pepper wrote this book about what's happened to Ohio because of the gerrymandering. He calls it Laboratories of Autocracy. The subtitle is A Wake-up Call From Behind the Lines. It's his flare from behind the lines to try to get people to pay attention to Ohio. It's a take-off on a very famous statement from Louis Brandeis, the former Supreme Court justice who said that State houses are laboratories of democracy.
David: Then let's hear some of your conversation with the author David Pepper.
Jane: David, how did you first come across all of this? It would be interesting to hear a little bit about your background here.
David Pepper: I'm from Cincinnati, I've moved back to Cincinnati after law school, I clerked for a wonderful federal sixth circuit judge. This was around 2000 when Cincinnati went through a very tough time with a number of police shootings, riots, a boycott. A city that I grew up being so proud of was performing terribly. I'm saying all this to say, that's when I ran for office myself. I ran for city council. It was a different time where you ran because you thought it was public service. That was my first entry to politics. I won. I had a good successful year then I ultimately became a county commissioner.
Then I ran statewide. I ran for state auditor in 2010 which is one of the positions that, if I had won, we could have ended gerrymandering. That is when I first began to really explore gerrymandering, how bad it was. The thing I learned in that race was that no one knew anything about what I was talking about. Here's the system that determines your entire democracy as a state, and nobody had a clue what the auditor was, or how the auditor impacted anything, let alone the drawing of our democracy. Ever since I became really obsessed with this horrible practice, that you basically have politicians that are drawing districts that essentially subvert democracy.
Jane: Well, 2010 was a big year, wasn't it, for gerrymandering?
David Pepper: Yes. It was a big year in our history. For the rest of our lives, I think 2010 is shaping so much of what's come since. We let our guard down. Democrats love to focus on a few federal races. The presidency, some swing states, some swing districts to get ourselves federal majorities, because in our mind, that's what elections and politics are about. If you understand that state house has shaped democracy, which the other side has understood, that means that 2010 was a very important year. Basically, if you look over the last 10 years, almost every single district that was drawn, the results are exactly as they drew the men.
Yes, we have elections, just like other countries around the world have elections but we're at a point now in Ohio, where at least at the legislative level, the elections are predetermined. The outcomes are generally blowouts. It's a process of democracy that feels democratic, but the outcomes are basically preordained at almost every one of these seats.
David: Jane, let's pause on that for a moment. What actually happened in 2010?
Jane: 2010 was a year of Republican backlash against Obama and Pepper thinks that what happened was that after the 2008 election of Obama, the Republican Party panicked, basically. They lost control of Washington, Obama swept Congress and the White House, and the only opening left for Republicans were the state houses, and they just went for them.
David: What does that mean, "Went for them?"
Jane: Well, the state houses were, first of all, it's a pretty easy and cheap investment for Republican donors to make. What happened was big donors in the Republican party were directed to pour $30 million into an organization that the Republican party created called Red Map, which was basically as it sounds, an effort to turn the entire map in the country red at the state house level. They poured money into these legislative districts and by the end of the 2010 election, the Republican Party picked up something like 700 seats.
Davi: I think Ohio was one of those states where they won big. Let's get back to the interview.
Jane: Currently, the Republican members in the state house it have an advantage of 64 to 35. In the state senate, 25 to 8. How's this playing out in practical terms in Ohio, what kinds of bills are you seeing that they're passing?
David Pepper: Once you have a rigged gerrymandered legislature, they don't behave like the people of Ohio. They behave as extreme as the most extreme legislature going. The laws are just like the ones in Florida or Alabama, they're all the same, because many that are being written and then shared with all at the same time. Every time one passes somewhere, like that, don't say gay law in Florida, it comes to Ohio because they showed they could do it there, it came here, they do it here.
Jane: What is happening with gun laws in Ohio at this point? Where's the state on gun restrictions? You've had, I think, a terrible shooting not that long ago in Dayton.
David Pepper: Same thing. We're legislating like we'rethe most far-right state in the country. This is very similar on every issue. Most Ohio are in support of common sense gun reforms, it's not even close. We're talking about strong majorities. In Ohio, they're legislating as if it's the opposite. Mike DeWine the governor, this guy had an F rating with the NRA when he was a US senator. He has now signed several bills, extreme form of stand your ground, one permitless carry in the last couple of months. In states like Ohio, you see this pattern where the unaccountable legislature is the one that drives the political machine.
Once that state house is in a position where it can't be held accountable,, it puts people who actually do face elections in an impossible position. I know you focus a lot on courts, think about it this way. State Houses are the sword in the attack on democracy, courts are the shield. The reason that Mitch McConnell and the federal society works so hard on the federal courts is so those courts can uphold the extremist laws coming out of state houses, but no one should ever lose sight of the fact, and we have for far too long, that their front line on the attack of democracy are rigged gerrymandered state houses. That's where almost all of it takes place.
Jane: Well, let's talk for a second about the case, the plight of this 10-year-old girl from Ohio who was the victim of a rape. Apparently when she was nine years old, became pregnant and had to flee to Indiana to get an abortion because of the new restrictions in Ohio. Is this, as you see it, a direct result of gerrymandering? Secondly, is there a chance that maybe the reaction, the backlash to it, will be big enough in Ohio that it may begin to wake people up and change this situation?
David: Yes, it's certainly a direct result. We are being governed by extremists who do not reflect Ohio. That's just clear. One of the most important things to appreciate about gerrymandering, again, it's not just leading to Republicans being in charge when they don't reflect a majority, which is what happens in some states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania. The way they gerrymander is to not have any swing seats. The old moderate Republican who would have said, "I'm not voting for that bill with no exceptions. I will lose my office. I'm in a swing district," they've gotten rid of those people. The gerrymandering basically has empowered the most extreme people.
The Jean Schmidts and others, who literally said that a rape was an opportunity for a young woman to bring a baby into the world. That's who's writing the laws. Again, in a system where a moderate gerrymander, you'd have some moderate saying, "Jean Schmidt, I can't vote for that." Those people are gone because those districts are gone. That's why you see the outcomes that are the direct result of these laws, there's no incentive to be moderate. The only incentive that is rewarded is being extreme, so every time one of them brings up a more extreme law, even some who might be queasy about that, cannot vote, "No". They would lose, and they know it. Yes, it's a direct result and it will continue.
Jane: The story of the 10-year-old rape victim went viral.
David Pepper: Here is this really sad news, that's one case of many, many, many cases that are going to play out for months and years. I think Republicans think around gun violence, "It's going to go away. They'll move on to something else." This isn't going to go away. It's going to keep happening.
Jane: It seems pretty clear that Ohio voters, they want to reform these districts and try to restore democracy and get rid of the extreme partisan gerrymandering. They've tried twice to reform it, right? What's happened?
David Pepper: The voters voted 70% plus two times to end the rigging of, first it was the state house, and then it was congress. They did it in '15 and '18. Overwhelming. What the Republican legislature did is they basically said in '21, "We're not going to do it. We are simply not going to do it." In Columbus the talk was they were running out the clock because we have a Ohio supreme court that is in the balance in this November's election. What does run out clock mean in real terms? They simply ignored the constitution, they did many things the constitution said they were not allowed to do, and every time the supreme court of Ohio in a bipartisan way where the Republican chief justice ruled, "You guys are violating the language that 70% of Ohioans put into place," they simply ignored the ruling.
I'm going to say this, it sounds dramatic, but it's true, they have succeeded in forcing Ohioans to live for the next two years in maps for both the State House and Congress with the unconstitutional.
David: Jean, the Ohio courts rejected these heavily gerrymandered maps and the state legislature just ignored the court and used them anyway. How is that possible? Isn't that a constitutional crisis on some level?
Jane: It is a constitutional crisis. It's an incredible story about what's happening in Ohio, which was the Republicans had the majority and were in charge of the operation of redistricting, and instead of going along with the will of the state, they came up with five maps in a row that their own supreme court in Ohio said violate the law.
David: Now, it's often said that gerrymandering leads to extremism for the party in power. Why is that? Why can't moderates win?
Jane: I asked the same question because it seems like if you would go too far it would be popular to have a moderate come in and challenge the extremist, especially if the voting population is not that extreme, but what happens is in primaries it's only the most partisan and hardcore who turn out. As an experiment, what we're learning is there's almost no extreme that's too extreme. Once you've got districts where the other party can't challenge you, the only pressure is to keep going further and further right in the Republican party.
David: What are other examples of that? You mentioned abortion. What other issues has this led to a big rightward swing in Ohio?
Jane: Well, on guns is one of the really big issues. Overall, if you take a look at polls in the state, 61% of Ohio's population wants new and more restrictions on gun rights. What did they get? So few that even the largest police organization in the state has been testifying against these gun laws as being dangerous. What have they got? They've got one law that enables teachers to be armed with less than 24 hours of training. Not just teachers, but others who work in schools, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, janitors. They've got a stand-your-ground law, and they've also got now a permitless concealed carry law. Which means that anybody who wants a handgun without any kind of permit or background check can get a handgun and carry it concealed.
If the police pull you over, like in your car, and you've got a gun in there, you have no obligation to let the police know that you're armed. The police think it's just endangering them.
David: Let's get back to the interview with David Pepper.
Jane: In Washington, there are an awful lot of people, including sometimes President Biden, who have talked about Trump as basically the originator of the attacks on democracy and the central problem with politics today. Trump and the threat that he may run again. You don't see it that way. Why?
David Pepper: No. I think it's an enormous mistake when we lump it all together as sort of never Trump or Trump this, or even when we talk about Marjorie Taylor Greene. I'll be very blunt, it's been our entire history, but the most recent iteration of the attack on democracy as we just described began ever before Trump decided to run for office. If Trump were locked up to the tomorrow for January 6th, they would still attack democracy. The mistake that we make when we make it about Trump is we make it far too narrow. We're all about personality, so we think about Trump and not institution.
If you lined up the set of things that are happening right now and said to an average American, "This is all happening in country X," what do you think they'd say? "They're losing their democracy." Then you all of a sudden reveal, "Well, it's actually Ohio and all these other states," that's the reality.
Jane: Now, I know you are the former chairman of the Democratic Party in Ohio, but I assume that the Democrats weren't angels when it came to gerrymandering themselves back when they had power. What's the difference?
David Pepper: Democrats in other states gerrymander as well. I'm very clear on this though. This is not a both sides issue. The Republican form of it is right now far more extreme in lurching in ways that you don't see in democratic states. The other thing I'll give credit, a lot of the democratic states are the states that have led reforms like Michigan and other places that have actually put into place independent commissions. People who care about this should study what Michigan did. They have an independent commission that drew the maps, it worked reasonably well, and they got out of this business of rigging all elections.
Jane: We often hear that democracy is under attack and that it's dying. Given everything that we've been talking about, is democracy already dead in Ohio?
David Pepper: It's on life support. At the state legislative level it's on life support or worse. It is very much like a country somewhere else that essentially the people have no choice, but it doesn't mean you can't claw it back. We need help from the federal level and the US Senate House and Biden need to pass federal protections that in the last two years they have failed to pass, which I think is a tragedy. Until we do that, democracy will be dead.
David: I can hear lots of voices out there saying, 'Wait a minute, gerrymandering is something that both parties do. Barack Obama, when he was a young politician, was the beneficiary of gerrymandered district. His district got reconfigured when he was in Illinois state politics. Why is there a bad guy here?
Jane: You are right and we quote someone who is a Republican official in the story saying gerrymandering goes back to the early days of the republic. Before the Republicans did it in Ohio, the Democrats who were in charge did it in Ohio. What's happened is it's become much more of a dark art. Thanks to computers and digital mapping, they have figured out ways now to do it that are so extreme, that you can create districts, as they have in Ohio, where whoever holds that district can't be knocked out by someone from the other party. They've just really dissected the state in a way that's beyond competition.
David: What you're saying is that the Republican party was just better at the gerrymandering drama than the Democratic party.
Jane: Much better at it, and so good at it that it's become a science experiment, a political science experiment. What we're seeing is what happens in a democracy when you can no longer compete against the other party.
David: Jane, is there any federal action that could reign in some of these excesses at the state level?
Jane: No. In fact, the federal courts did weigh in in Ohio and they supported the extreme gerrymandering and basically overrode the state Supreme Court and said, "Go ahead and have the election anyway with these districts that the state Supreme Court says are unconstitutional."
David: The Democrats themselves are powerless to do anything in Republican lit states?
Jane: The best thing they can do right now in Ohio is they're trying to reelect a Supreme Court that will be activist and try to strike these districts down after this election, they're going to take another swing at it. The only other thing that they can really do, and this is where David Pepper comes back into it, is he is trying really hard to persuade the cognoscente in American politics, particularly in democratic politics to put money into local races and challenge the other part even if you're going to lose, so that at least voters get to hear some argument, and you don't just abandon half the country to extremists.
David: Now you've concentrated on the state of Ohio. How indicative is the experience on Ohio to the rest of the country?
Jane: I think that the gerrymandering is all over the country, particularly in states that were important to the Republicans in 2010. What's interesting, the reason to look at Ohio is there's a bigger gap in some ways between what the general population thinks and the way the legislature is passing bills. You see this in Wisconsin, you see it in Pennsylvania, and then certainly down in the South.
David: The last question you asked David Pepper was if democracy was dead in Ohio, and he said it was on life support. How would you answer that question for yourself both in Ohio and beyond?
Jane: I think life support is the perfect way. It's got a pulse, but it's getting weaker.
David: Jane, thanks so much.
Jane: Great to meet with you.
David: The New Yorker's, Jane Mayer. You can find her reporting on Ohio and much more at newyorker.com. We heard earlier from David Pepper, an Ohio politician who is the author of Laboratories of Autocracy.
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