More than 71 percent of Ohioans in 2015 voted to reduce hyperpartisan influence in the drawing of legislative district maps.
On Tuesday, the state’s voters can try to rein in congressional gerrymandering.
As the 2020 Census nears, redistricting issues are populating state ballots across the country. Seven states, including Ohio, have proposed ballot issues reforming redistricting, and reformers in two others are attempting to get their state legislatures to change the process, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering two cases — one involving Republican-drawn legislative maps in Wisconsin and the other Democratic-drawn congressional maps in Maryland — that experts say could lead to the court finally issuing a definitive ruling on partisan gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is the process of drawing legislative and congressional districts to favor a particular party or incumbent. It is as old as America’s democracy and has been practiced by both political parties, though Republican have owned the process in Ohio in recent redistricting cycles because of their control over the legislature and key statewide offices.
Issue 1, a proposed state constitutional amendment reforming congressional redistricting, is on the May 8 primary ballot. Placed there by the legislature, it sets new rules on congressional redistricting, mandates a bipartisan process and, if the political parties fail to reach compromise, allows the majority to draw a short-term map under even more strict rules.
There is no organized opposition, though the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio is staying neutral on the issue. The Republican and Democratic state parties have endorsed the constitutional amendment.
“Redistricting reform is not a left issue or a right issue. It is good for all voters,” said Kettering’s Republican Mayor Don Patterson at a pro-Issue 1 news conference on Wednesday with Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. “We deserve accountable elected officials and it’s impossible to have accountability with gerrymandered, uncompetitive elections.”
Whaley, a Democrat, said Issue 1 would put in place a transparent process with rules that should reduce partisanship and create districts that are more reflective of the state’s political makeup.
“We don’t get to pick our constituents and we don’t think state reps and congressmen should get to pick theirs either,” Whaley said.
Redistricting of legislative and congressional district lines is done across the country every 10 years after the decennial census to reflect population changes. Ohio’s drop in population cost it two congressional seats in the 2011 redistricting and the state may lose another seat after 2020, according to estimates. Ohio has 16 U.S. House members. Twelve are Republicans and four are Democrats.
Calls for reform have increased amid the partisan rancor and gridlock that dominates politics in Washington and elsewhere. Powerful computers, massive data sets and affordable map-making software also allow the parties in power to easily manipulate district boundaries to their advantage. The process isn’t particularly open either.
In 2011, the last time the maps were redrawn in Ohio, they became public only after secret negotiations. The legislature is in charge of drawing the maps, and can approve them with a simple majority.
“Part of the problem we are faced with in Columbus and Washington is the inability to work across the aisle,” said Tom Roberts, Ohio Conference president of the NAACP and a Democrat who formerly served in the Ohio House and Senate. “I think the reason is there is not a balance in either legislative body.”
The map’s fairness has been called into question by the results in recent statewide elections. In 2016, Republican congressional candidates won 60 percent of the vote, yet captured 75 percent of the seats. In its biannual Predictable Results report, The League of Women Voters of Ohio found that the state’s districts are so lopsided in favor of one party or another that the partisan index — which is the percentage of Democrats and Republicans in the district — has correctly predicted the outcome of all congressional races since 2012.
The issue on Tuesday’s ballot is the product of a compromise between the legislature and a coalition made up of Common Cause Ohio, The League of Women Voters of Ohio and other partners. The Fair Districts = Fair Elections coalition had pushed for a constitutional amendment that closely mirrored what 71 percent of voters approved in 2015, turning the map-making responsibilities to a seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission.
The coalition was aiming for the November ballot, and had gathered about 250,000 of the required 305,591 signatures statewide, when a group of legislators began negotiations on a compromise ballot measure that would have the support of both sides. The result doesn’t match exactly what the Fair Districts = Fair Elections group had proposed, but there is general agreement that it builds more bipartisanship into a process that has long allowed little to no input from the minority party.
Issue 1 would give the legislature first shot at redrawing congressional lines every ten years, but the amendment sets new rules requiring bipartisanship, public input and transparency, and also sets limits on splitting communities and counties into multiple districts. Approval requires a super majority of both the Ohio House and Senate with 50 percent of Democratic and Republican members supporting it, said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio.
If the legislature fails to produce a bipartisan map, the task goes to the redistricting commission, which consists of seven members: the governor, state auditor, secretary of state, two majority party appointees made by the Ohio House and Senate majority leaders and two minority party appointees made by the Ohio House and Senate minority leaders. The commission could make a map with the votes of at least four members, two coming from the minority party.
If the commission fails, the state legislature gets another shot, and could approve a 10-year map with a three-fifths vote in favor, including one-third of minority party members.
The final step, if all others fail, is the legislature could draw a four-year map with the approval of a simple majority, but must do it under strict new rules prohibiting a map that unduly favors one party or incumbent, and requires that the districts be geographically compact.
“A really bad map could stop because of a gubernatorial veto, it could stop because of (a citizen) referendum or it could stop because of taking them to court,” Turcer said.
‘We’re the wild west’
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio is not opposing the issue but has decided to remain neutral on it over concerns that it doesn’t go far enough and that the majority party will simply draw four-year maps.
“While there are some benefits to Issue 1 it still allows for partisan gerrymandering,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the ACLU of Ohio.
Turcer said she understands that concern but argues the compromise is better than the current system. The only rules the party in power must follow now are that the districts not violate the federal Civil Rights Act and that they contain approximately equal populations.
“(It) really curbs the worst aspects of gerrymandering,” Turcer said. “We’re the wild wild west.”
Supporters say districts with a diverse political mix are more fair, decrease partisanship, and give voters a greater choice.
“In the current system there’s not a lot of incentive to compromise,” said Keith Lake, vice president of government affairs for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, which has endorsed Issue 1. “Issue one is going to change who controls how the maps are drawn and takes out a lot of the opportunity for partisan mischief.”
State Issue 1 - Congressional Redistricting Reform - How it works
The Ohio Legislature would draw a 10-year map, which would need a super majority of the Ohio House and Senate, with support from 50 percent of both Republican and Democratic Party members, to be adopted.
The rules discourage dividing communities and require that 65 counties must be kept whole, 18 cannot be split more than once and five cannot be split more than twice.
Public hearings must be held on proposed maps before a vote, and the public can submit proposed district maps for consideration.
If the legislature fails to produce a map, the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission can draw a 10-year map, which would require four votes in favor, including two from the minority party.
If the commission fails to produce a map, it goes back to state legislature, which can draw a 10-year map with a three-fifths vote, including one-third of minority party members.
If that fails, the legislature can approve a four-year map with a simple majority under strict rules that only apply at this stage.
The four-year map rules require that districts be geographically compact. They also prohibit districts that unduly favor or disfavor a party or incumbent, or unduly split governmental units like counties or cities.
The legislature would have to produce a written explanation for how a four-year map meets the letter of the law.
The governor has veto power over maps approved by the legislature and any map can be challenged in court or by citizen referendum.