Issue 1: Ohioans Vote to Limit Gerrymandering
Legalizing marijuana wasn’t the only interesting initiative on the Ohio ballot Tuesday; the state approved a new redistricting commission to prevent partisan district mapping, putting the task in the hands of a seven-person commission. Issue 1, which received an overwhelming majority of votes, will seek to limit the control of one party over elections for the state assembly.
The change will expand the existing five-person commission to include four additional legislators–ensuring that at least two members will be from the minority party. While redistricting in Ohio was already under the control of a commission outside of the legislature, the commission was composed of the Governor, State Auditor, Secretary of State, and one member from each party, which gave a 4 to 1 majority for the Republican Party. The new system will include incentives for bipartisanship and adds another member from each party to give additional voice to the minority.
The amendment also makes it more difficult for a long-term redistricting to be pushed through without minority support. Redistricting, a process that occurs every 10 years after the Census, involves adjusting existing election districts to accommodate for population change. In order to create a new 10-year district map, both members of the minority party will need to approve the plan. However, a short-term map can be implemented for a period of four years if bipartisan support is not possible.
Issue 1 had support from both parties and the backing of over 100 organizations as Ohioans feel that their current redistricting system strongly favors the majority party. While the amendment will not change the way that the state’s Congressional districts are drawn, the newly expanded commission will draw maps for the Ohio House of Representatives and the Ohio Senate.
This plan seeks to eliminate the issues associated with gerrymandering, a long-derided practice where legislators in charge of redistricting create maps that favor their party (for more information on gerrymandering see Law Street’s explainer). Many people argue that gerrymandering is a significant source of America’s political woes while many political scientists claim that the practice isn’t nearly as big of an issue as people make it out to be.
Political scientists Jowei Chen and Jonathon Rodden contend that gerrymandering, as done by partisan state legislators, is not as much of a problem as people think it is. Instead, they find that “unintentional gerrymandering”–which has more to do with the geographic distribution of voters within a state–has a much greater effect. Unintentional gerrymandering is particularly an issue for the Democratic Party, whose constituents tend to cluster themselves in urban areas, whereas Republicans tend to be more rural and spread out. As a result, you see cities voting overwhelmingly for Democrats while rural districts voters lean Republican. This can lead to election results where the majority of the people in a state vote for Democratic candidates, but Republicans win more seats. Put simply, it’s not necessarily how districts are drawn that matter, but where people choose to live in the first place. Yet even when you account for unintentional gerrymandering, it’s clear that the practice has at least some effect on election outcomes.
While the issue of gerrymandering is often exaggerated, the extent of gerrymandering in Ohio is particularly extreme. A report from the League of Women’s Voters of Ohio found that in the 2014 elections, Republican candidates in the Ohio House of Representatives received 57 percent of the vote, but the party won 66 percent of the total number of seats. The same thing happened in the Ohio Senate but to a lesser extent–Republicans received 54 percent of the vote and 58 percent of the seats. The discrepancy between votes and seats illustrates the way in which district lines can influence election outcomes.
This trend is even starker when you look at the state’s Congressional districts, as Republican candidates statewide got about 52 percent of the vote but 75 percent of the Congressional seats. It is important to note that the new redistricting amendment will have no effect on the drawing of Congressional districts. However, that may change in the future–Ohio legislators have already introduced a bill that calls for all Ohio redistricting to be under the control of the seven-person commission.
In addition to disproportionate representation, many fear that gerrymandering leads to decreased responsiveness from elected officials. If districts are drawn to heavily favor certain politicians, they have very little fear of losing their bid for re-election. The classic criticism is that “politicians are choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians.” That sentiment was one of the main arguments in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s decision to uphold an independent redistricting commission in Arizona, which created a legal justification for similar commissions in other states.
While Ohio’s new constitutional amendment will not solve all of the state’s districting problems, notably its Congressional districts, it will have some important consequences. First, by expanding the panel to include more people from the minority party, it will not be as easy for the majority party to create districts that favor certain officials. Second, the amendment also makes the redistricting process much more open and transparent, allowing people to understand how districts are drawn and the decision making that goes into them. Finally, as Andrew Prokop at Vox points out, the Ohio Constitution now says that no district “shall be drawn primarily to favor or disfavor a party.” Not only does it lay out important guidelines for what a good district should look like, it also creates a legal underpinning for people to challenge unfair redistricting in Ohio courts.