Congressional Redistricting Reform On The Way In Ohio?

Jun 4, 2017

There just seems to be something inherently unfair about how Ohio draws its congressional district lines, a process that, in 2011, was controlled by Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly.

Historically, it's never mattered what party was in control of the process – Republicans draw districts that favor their party; Democrats draw lines that favor their party.

But this 2011 re-draw of congressional districts in Ohio was a doozy. The Republican legislature drew lines that all but guaranteed that Republicans would hold three-fourths of the state's congressional districts until at least the year 2022.

Under current law, the majority party in the legislature draws the congressional district lines every 10 years after the U.S. Census; and there is not a whole lot the minority can do about it.

Here's the practical result:

In 2012, the first election under the present districts, 47 percent of Ohio voters cast ballots for a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House. About 51 percent cast ballots for Republican candidates.

That would result in an Ohio delegation that was nearly evenly split, right? Maybe seven Democrats and nine Republicans, or maybe even an eight-eight split.

Wrong.

Because of how the GOP drew the lines, the Republicans won 12 seats – 75 percent of the total – while the Democrats won only four.

And it has been the same result in the two subsequent U.S. House elections in 2014 and 2016.

Ohio's present congressional district map
Credit Ohio Secretary of State

"The fact is we don't have competitive districts in the state of Ohio,'' said Daniel P. Tokaji, a professor of election law at The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.

"If we know what the result of every single (House) election is going to be before a single vote is cast, then there is no real accountability,'' Tokaji said. "And that is exactly what we have now."

So what to do about it?

A coalition called Fair Congressional Districts for Ohio – made up of Ohio Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the Ohio Environmental Council – has a plan.

It is a ballot issue that is nearly identical to one for the drawing of state legislative district lines that was passed by Ohio voters in 2015 with about 71 percent of the vote.

Last week, the Ohio Ballot Board certified its plan for the ballot as a single issue, allowing the groups to begin gathering signatures.

It will be a daunting task for them to gather the necessary 305,591 signatures of Ohio voters – amounting to 10 percent of the total vote cast in the 2014 governor's race – by July 5 in order to put their constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

Even their allies in the Democratic Party acknowledge that getting enough signatures to qualify for this year would be difficult, but they could keep banking signatures after July 5 and try to qualify for the Nov. 2018 ballot, when Ohioans will be choosing a new governor.

A bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission – which was set up when Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed the 2015 constitutional amendment – would consist of the governor, the secretary of state, the state auditor and one person appointed by the Ohio House and Senate majority and minority leaders. No members of Congress could serve on the commission.

As things stand now, the partisan make-up of the commission would be five Republicans and two Democrats. That, though, could change in next year's election for statewide offices.

Whatever the partisan breakdown of the commission, to adopt a congressional map, a plan must be supported by a majority of the commission, including at least two members of the minority party.

The minority party would not be shut out of the process, as it is now.

The coalition has a set of bullet points that any plan must conform to, including:

  • No congressional district will be drawn to favor (or disfavor) any political party of candidates;
  • Each district will be nearly equal in population;
  • The plan will minimize the splitting of counties (as Hamilton County is now), municipalities and townships, and no county shall be split more than once;
  • Districts will be "geographically contiguous and compact."

And, the constitutional amendment says, that "representational fairness is required." This is what we were saying earlier – that the percentage of districts leaning toward one party or another should "closely correspond to the partisan preferences of the voters of Ohio."

It's a tough business, collecting signatures for a statewide ballot issue. Petitioners must have collected signatures from at least 44 of Ohio's 88 counties, and, within each of those counties, have enough signatures to equal five percent of the total vote cast for governor in the most recent gubernatorial election.

That is why the November 2018 election is a more realistic goal for the coalition.

And that's just fine with the Ohio Democratic Party, which hasn't formally endorsed the plan (not yet), but which is touting the issue on its website and helping guide Democrats to places where they can pick up petitions.

Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper said he senses a lot of enthusiasm for the issue from rank-and-file Democrats, who are still stinging over the loss of Ohio to Donald Trump last year and are looking for ways to fight back.

"They want to have something positive to do,'' Pepper said. 'They have rallied; they have marched, and not once have any of these Republicans from Ohio held a town hall meeting. Well, Warren Davidson, I guess."

The Ohio Republican Party has had nothing to say about this effort so far, although, in 2015, the state party did endorse Issue 1, that constitutional amendment to reform the drawing of the state legislative district lines.

Earlier this year, State Sen. Frank LaRose (R-Hudson), who is a candidate for Ohio Secretary of State, introduced a resolution that would require congressional maps to be approved by a majority of state legislators from both parties or two-thirds of both legislative chambers.

With the complete domination by Republicans of both the Ohio House and Senate now, Democrats say LaRose's plan could result in a map without Democrats having any say in the matter.

LaRose told WVXU there have yet to be any legislative committee hearings on his resolution, which would put his plan on the ballot.

The Republican from Hudson said the criticism of his proposal from Democrats "sounds like a starting point for compromise to me. I want a bipartisan effort. My measure is the basis for a conversation on this."

"I give credit to the groups who are out there doing a petition initiative,'' LaRose told WVXU. "But I really think that the legislative process is a much better way to go."

There seems little likelihood that the GOP-controlled legislature is going to do anything with LaRose's resolution. They seem to be sitting back and watching what happens with the petition initiative.

Putting this on the ballot in 2017 seems unlikely, said Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke, "but there really is a great groundswell among progressives for this so maybe they could pull it off."

"What happened when the GOP re-drew the congressional district lines in 2011  made it all but impossible for us in congressional elections," Burke said.

They decided that in Rep. Steve Chabot's First Congressional District, they would make it "Democrat-proof" by adding Warren County – one of the most heavily Republican counties in the state – to the district; and lopping off a part of the city of Cincinnati and putting it in the Second District.

The First District lost a lot of African-American voters who never supported Chabot, Burke said, and allowed them to get swallowed up in the sprawling, overwhelming white and heavily Republican Second District.

"They not only split the county, but they split the city of Cincinnati,'' Burke said. "There's something wrong about that."

Pepper knows that having this on the ballot in Nov. 2018 could help motivate the Democratic base in a year when the Ohio Democratic Party is desperate to win back some of the statewide offices they've been shut out of in the past two election cycles.

But, he says, "it's just the right thing to do."

"Look, after the 2020 Census, it's highly likely that Ohio is going to lose a congressional district," Pepper told WVXU. "The implications of that for Democrats are not good unless we can get this constitutional amendment passed and turn things around."

If Ohio loses a congressional seat in the next Census – which it almost certainly will – and there is no new plan for drawing congressional district lines, the Republicans could well end up controlling the process again.

That could mean that, in 2022, a little over half of the votes cast could go to Republicans candidates for the U.S. House and they would win 80 percent of the seats.

No wonder the Democrats are helping this coalition circulate petitions.