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Ohio strikes blow against gerrymandering

The Ohio State House in Columbus., CC BY-SA

On November 3, Ohio voters approved by a margin of 71% to 29% a constitutional amendment that will greatly reduce, or even eliminate, the gerrymandering of state legislative districts beginning in 2021.

Ratification of Issue 1 by the voters followed its approval by bipartisan votes of 28-1 in the Ohio State Senate and 81-7 in the Ohio House of Representatives.

The overwhelming success of this reform should encourage similar efforts in other states that have been badly gerrymandered, such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin.

In Ohio, attention now turns to reforms that would establish a fair redistricting process for Ohio’s US congressional seats as well.

A blight on democracy

Gerrymandering – the process of drawing district lines so as to virtually guarantee the victory of one party even before the votes are cast – has long been a blight on the quality of American democracy.

Gerrymandering has been used by both parties since at least 1812. That’s when the Boston Gazette published a cartoon mocking the salamander-shaped district drawn by Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry with the purpose of favoring electoral prospects of his Democratic-Republican Party candidates.

With the development of sophisticated computer programs, the distorting political effects of gerrymandering have been magnified enormously.

Ohio is one of the most gerrymandered states in the US – both in state legislature and US Congressional districts.

Take the example of the 2012 election. Democratic candidates for the Ohio House received over 55,000 more votes than the Republicans. Yet gerrymandered districts led the Republican Party to win a supermajority of 60 out of 99 seats.

When you look at Congressional districts, this distortion is even more extreme. Republicans won 75% of the seats after having received just 52% of the vote in 2012. They held onto 75% of the seats with just 57% percent of the vote in 2014.

Political scientists use an “electoral disproportionality” score to measure unfair representation. In 2012, Ohio’s score was the fourth worst in the nation – behind only Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

In addition to unfairly representing the preferences of the voters, gerrymandering has virtually eliminated competitiveness from Ohio’s elections.

In the 2014 election, only one Ohio House race out of 99 was decided by a margin of less than 7%, while 24 were decided by margins of 40% or more. Partisan advantages in 16 state House districts – as well as 10 of 33 Senate districts – were so extreme that the disfavored party did not even field a candidate.

Messy maps

Finally, the representation of communities is made a mockery by maps that either splinter cities and counties or overwhelm them with voters “tacked” into the district from distant rural areas.

Ohio congressional districts. Ohio Secretary of State

The counties that are home to Cleveland and Akron are fragmented into four different congressional districts. Five other counties are chopped up among three districts. The sixth congressional dDistrict runs from industrial Youngstown through hundreds of miles of rural and farmlands along the Ohio River.

Ohio Senate districts. Mark J. Salling, Cleveland State University, CC BY

And the ninth district (the infamous “snake by the lake”) stretches from Toledo to Cleveland. It is the product of a successful effort to force Democratic representatives Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur into the same district.

Reform succeeds – finally

Several attempts had been made to change Ohio’s redistricting processes.

These included unsuccessful constitutional initiatives in 1981, 2005 and 2012. In 2010, a legislative effort to merge a Republican reform plan passed by the Senate with a House Joint Resolution passed with bipartisan support was nearly successful.

In November 2014, the seeds of this year’s success were sown.

Secret negotiations were initiated among a handful of individuals charged by Republican and Democratic leaders in the House with designing a redistricting process that could be passed with bipartisan support in the legislature.

The principal negotiators were Democratic Representative Vernon Sykes and former Republican Senator Jeff Jacobson, assisted by the House Republican Legal Counsel Mike Lenzo and and Democratic Legal Counsel Sarah Cherry. I was chosen to be part of this group based on my academic expertise and previous experience in the 2005, 2010 and 2012 reform efforts. We met behind closed doors between November 21 and December 4, with occasional input from Republican and Democratic leadership.

The resulting House Joint Resolution 12 was quickly passed in the House (80-4) and sent on to the Senate. There, the Republican majority proposed some amendments which triggered intense bargaining, although in the end did not change much.

At 4:08 am on December 12, the last day of the session, the Senate passed the slightly amended resolution by a vote of 28-1, sending it back to the House for a concurring vote of 81-7.

As Issue 1, it was approved by Ohio voters on November 3.

What Issue 1 will do

Issue 1 will enlarge the current Apportionment Board by adding one Democratic and one Republican representative of the legislature to the current board.

The new Ohio Redistricting Commission will consist of the governor, the auditor, the secretary of state, and four representatives of the legislature – two from each party.

In order for a statewide redistricting plan to be valid for a full 10 years, it must receive at least two votes from representatives of the minority party. If it doesn’t, it will be valid for only four years, and must then be redrawn by a Redistricting Commission whose composition will have been changed by ensuing elections. We believe that the resulting uncertainty will provide an incentive to reach bipartisan agreement.

More importantly, specific procedures and criteria were written into the Constitution that will take many of commonly used gerrymandering techniques off the table.

Under its provisions, drawing new district boundaries must entail as few splits of counties, municipalities and townships as possible. Preference must be given to the preservation of large counties and municipalities. This should facilitate the representation of communities and help to increase the competitiveness of several districts.

New requirements of representational fairness are included in the Constitution. The Constitution now states that “No General Assembly district plan shall be drawn primarily to favor or disfavor a party.” It adds that the shares of districts favoring the two major parties should “correspond closely to the statewide political preferences of the voters of Ohio” as measured by the average of votes cast for the major parties’ candidates over the previous decade.

What Issue 1 does not do

The reforms described above apply only to the Ohio General Assembly, not the US Congress.

Ohio must now turn to reforming its congressional redistricting process. The polarization and deadlock in the US Congress is partly a product of the safe districts that gerrymandering has created in many states. Evidence of the damage that this is inflicting on American democracy is so clear that inaction is no longer acceptable.

Proposals modeled after Issue 1 have been introduced in both the Ohio House and Senate to reform the congressional redistricting process.

The solid, bipartisan mandate for change represented by the enactment of Issue 1 should carry over into this essential reform process, and should encourage efforts to eliminate gerrymandering in other states as well.

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