Ohio congressional districts by presidential and House winner's party, click to enlarge
On Tuesday, Ohio voters will head to the polls to vote in local elections and decide on a handful of statewide ballot measures. One key issue they face is Initiative 1, a ballot measure to reform the current redistricting rules that have allowed Republicans to aggressively gerrymander the state House and state Senate since the early 1990s. Gerrymandering is a serious problem nationally and especially in Ohio, where Democratic legislative candidates won more votes than the GOP in 2012, but Republicans won a veto-proof majority largely thanks to rigged maps. A bipartisan legislative vote placed this measure on the ballot and it enjoys broad support.
Ohio's current five-member legislative-redistricting board allows whichever party controls two out of three of the statewide offices of governor, secretary of state, and auditor to command a majority and thus draw its own maps (the legislature's two major parties also select one member each). Since Republicans held at least two of those three offices during the last three rounds of redistricting, the party has had a nearly unbroken grip on the legislature since 1992. Congressional redistricting proceeds like it does in most states, with the legislature passing a map that the governor can either sign or veto, and subsequently Republicans have dominated the congressional delegation since 2002.
This year, Issue 1 would alter that system for the state legislature only, in a supposed effort to reduce partisan gerrymandering and promote good governance. It sounds great, right? Readers familiar with my past work on this subject should know I have long advocated reforming our system to end partisan gerrymandering, particularly by using ballot measures to bypass defiant state legislatures. However, this measure has some serious drawbacks and it is designed to diminish future appetite for true reform. In all likelihood, it will merely lock in milder Republican gerrymanders for years to come, as bipartisan commissions run by politicians protect incumbents at the expense of good governance.
Head below the fold to see why this ballot measure, while preferable to the status quo today, is nonetheless very flawed and potentially harmful to Democrats in the long term.
Issue 1 would reform the current five-member board by expanding it to seven members, with the legislative leadership in each party selecting two members instead of just one. That still allows the governor, secretary of state, and auditor to determine the majority party. However, unlike the current system, two members of the minority party would be required for passage of a map if that map is to remain in place for the next 10 years. Additionally, the amendment requires districts take compactness into account, minimize local jurisdictional divisions, and ostensibly prevents the drawing of districts to favor or disfavor a party, while aiming for the partisan balance of districts statewide to reflect Ohio itself.
Unfortunately, the majority party can still unilaterally pass a map with a simple majority, but it would only remain in place for four years. If after four years that majority passes the same map again, it stays in place for the rest of the decade. Given that the three relevant statewide offices are elected in midterms, when Democratic voters are less likely to turn out, Republicans conceivably could implement a partisan map for the entire decade.
While compactness standards are useful, but not ideal in isolation, they don't come anywhere close to preventing gerrymandering. Just next door, Indiana Republicans drew a fairly compact congressional map that nonetheless locked in a seven to two advantage in the House delegation. Furthermore, the ongoing Florida redistricting saga demonstrated how partisans can draw gerrymandered districts and get away with it for multiple cycles while litigation gets bogged down in court. Unlike Florida, where the liberal bloc holds a state Supreme Court majority and voted to strike down the Republican map, Republicans have long held a clear, partisan Supreme Court majority in Ohio. It's not a stretch to think they would give a more modest Republican gerrymander a pass. Finally, Republicans can game districts to appear competitive, yet which actually favor them strongly due to factors like incumbency.
Even if the resulting map is bipartisan, there's good reason to think that Democrats would sign off on a GOP map. Democrats often act as a coalition of diverse interest groups, and they often seek to put their own parochial concerns ahead of the party's overall interests. In nearly every state they wielded power, Democrats failed to maximize their congressional seat count because of self-interested incumbents and factions.
Ohio was a particularly damning case in 2011. Several Ohio Democrats wanted to put the state's gerrymandered congressional map up to a statewide referendum that year to block its implementation for 2012. Unfortunately, Democratic legislators then voted en masse with Republicans to give a marginally different compromise map a super-majority and thus protect it from a veto referendum. In exchange, all Republicans had done was redraw a few of the districts slightly differently to satisfy particular Democratic legislators, all while still maintaining their same 12 to four advantage overall.
But Republicans, acting as a more ideological coalition, seek to maximize their seats and put party before individual concerns. We also saw this in Ohio firsthand in 2011 when the Republicans drew their congressional map that sacrificed Republican Rep. Steve Austria in order to create a Democratic vote sink in Columbus that enabled them to protect all the remaining Republican congressmen in central Ohio. If the Republicans get to draw the lines again, they'll craft another gerrymander, and there's a good chance that Buckeye State Democrats will sign off on it.
If Democratic legislators looked out for themselves and their factional interests before their party's interests in 2011, why should we trust them not to do so again in 2021? This behavior isn't unique to Ohio either. New Jersey and Washington state both use bipartisan politician commissions. In each state, political commission-appointees sought to protect incumbents in a quid pro quo and both states' districts are considerably gerrymandered as a result. That's not what good-government reform looks like, despite Ohio legislators' talking points to the contrary.
Ohio — Proposed Map:
Click to enlarge
Interactive version • District summary stats
Drawn by: Republican governor and legislature
Delegation: 4 Democrats, 12 Republicans
2012 Vote: Obama 51, Romney 48
Since this ballot measure does not affect the congressional map, that could mean Democratic legislators ensure they have safe seats, despite serving in the minority, while ignoring their party in Congress. If Ohio had a truly nonpartisan congressional map like the one above, Democrats could have won four to five more districts in a year such as 2012, producing a statewide delegation that much more closely reflects Ohio's evenly divided voting history than the current 75 percent Republican delegation.
The biggest risk with this proposed commission is that it will destroy any appetite for further redistricting reform among Democrats and reform-minded independent organizations, just as flawed redistricting reform measures have done in other states. At best, it might just induce reformers to include Congress under the same bipartisan process as the legislature, leading to maps that, while not as aggressive as the current Republican gerrymander, would still have a clear rightward lean.
A far more ideal solution is to establish a truly independent redistricting commission free of self-interested political officeholders. Arizona did this very thing, producing a commission reformers regarded highly. After a crucial United States Supreme Court ruling validated establishing redistricting commissions by initiative, there has been a renewed push for similar reforms in other ballot measure states. It's quite possible that renewed independent reform efforts spurred Republicans' desire in Ohio to block a more aggressive future reform by agreeing to Issue 1 now.
Although independent redistricting initiatives have failed in Ohio before, the most recent effort in 2012 did so largely for two reasons. First, the measure faced a substantial campaign spending disadvantage. Second, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted intentionally gave the complicated measure confusing ballot language in an effort to defeat it. That didn't have to be the case though, since, even in the disastrous year of 2010, similar measures in California and Florida easily passed thanks to adequate funding on the part of their proponents and an institutional setup that lent itself to understandable ballot language. It is quite realistic to believe such a measure could succeed in Ohio in 2016 or 2020 if Democrats and unions supported it with more equitable funding.
Unfortunately, we seem to be heading down a road where Democratic legislators look after themselves yet again at the expense of their party. At worst, reformers might believe their job is done while biased district lines yet again deny Democrats a majority despite a popular vote win as they did in 2012. This measure is clearly an improvement over the status quo even if a small one, but it would be a shame to see Republicans successfully sacrifice their short-term power in exchange for a stronger position against reform in the long term. If Democrats and reform-minded groups want real change, they'll need to fight for more thorough changes before the next round of redistricting.