Ohio is home to some of the most extreme Republican gerrymandering in the country, so it may come as a surprise that the GOP-dominated legislature overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment that would make the state’s congressional redistricting process more bipartisan. This measure had wide support from both parties, as well as the backing of nonpartisan reform groups. Consequently, it will almost certainly pass when it appears on the May 8 primary ballot. While it may seem astonishing that GOP legislators would willingly give limit their power, we take a far more cynical view as to their real motivations: This reform is intended to block more vigorous measures to end gerrymandering and create fairer maps, as we explain below.
Ohio currently lets the legislature draw a congressional map subject to gubernatorial veto. Republicans gained unified control over state government in 2010 and drew one of the most partisan gerrymanders in America. This map has given the GOP 12 of 16 seats in every election since its adoption, even in 2012 when Obama won the state 51-48. Reform advocates had been pushing for change for many years, and both the League of Women Voters and Common Cause had been backing a ballot initiative to create a bipartisan redistricting commission and had been gathering signatures for the November ballot. However, that effort will likely come to a halt now that reformers have accepted a compromise with legislators, but the devil is in the details.
The new amendment approved by the legislature would still leave legislators and party officials in charge of the process. However, for the legislature to pass a map, it would need 60 percent supermajority approval, including at least 50 percent of the members of the minority party. If the legislature can't pass a map, it would go to the same bipartisan commission of officeholders that already handles legislative redistricting. That commission is made up of four legislators—two from each party—and the governor, secretary of state, and auditor. The panel would currently have a Republican majority thanks to the GOP’s hold on statewide offices, but at least two votes from the minority party would be required to pass a map.
However, if the commission can't reach an agreement, the legislature gets another crack. The legislature would still need a 60 percent supermajority, but this time the share of votes required from the minority party would go down to just one third. But here's the critical part: If all those convoluted steps still fail to produce a map, the legislature gets to pass a map with a simple majority and no minority-party veto, although the map would only be good for four years instead of the usual 10. And what happens after four years? They can do it all over again.
This new amendment would also limit the number of ways counties can be split. It mandates that 65 of Ohio's 88 counties be undivided, while 18 counties can be split two ways, and five counties could be divided three ways; none could be split more than that. It also says the cities of Cleveland and Cincinnati can't be divided, as they currently are.
While reformers and Democratic officials have hailed this compromise, we strongly believe it is fatally flawed because it essentially still leaves one party in charge of the redistricting process. Given the degree to which legislative districts are already heavily gerrymandered to benefit the GOP, that will likely be Republicans after 2020, unless Democrats win the 2018 gubernatorial election and break the GOP's supermajorities in the legislature. When legislators are left in charge of the process, they will try to engage in gerrymandering no matter what constraints they face.
Even if the two parties do reach a compromise on a map, Ohio Democratic leaders simply cannot be trusted to fight gerrymandering, because they previously failed to do so this very decade. Back in 2011 when Republicans passed their congressional gerrymander, Democratic legislators supplied enough votes to protect the new map from a citizen-initiated veto referendum in exchange for favorable changes to the districts of Democratic incumbents—even though the map decimated the party's ability to win additional seats.
This proposed reform means the Democratic minority in the commission or legislature could be strongly tempted to approve a tamer GOP gerrymander in exchange for protecting their current incumbents. And the GOP can threaten to unilaterally pass a more partisan map for four years if Democrats don't make concessions.
Most disappointingly, this compromise will likely make it impossible to achieve more far-reaching reforms, because it removes the ability of reformers to argue that the current system of unfettered legislative control over the process is unjust and that politicians can't be trusted to draw their own districts. Consequently, Ohio will be less apt to enact a future process that shuts legislators and party officials out of the process entirely, as citizens in California and Arizona have done. These truly independent commissions—as opposed to commissions of legislators and party officials—have produced much fairer lines in recent years by putting aside partisan interests and prioritizing competitiveness.
By contrast, bipartisan, politician-appointed commissions in states like New Jersey and Washington have both engaged in partisan gerrymandering and incumbent protection. Simply letting both parties protect their own seats may yield a fairer partisan balance than one-party control, but it deprives voters of the chance to vote in a competitive election, meaning outcomes are often still foreordained.
The criteria that mapmakers must adhere to also matters greatly, and the latest Ohio compromise falls short on that count, too. The proposed November ballot initiative would have placed limits on maps designed to favor or disfavor a party or candidate, and—most importantly—would have required that maps be reflective of the Ohio’s statewide partisan composition. In other words, new maps were supposed to be fair, not just apolitical. This compromise proposal does no such thing, and it will enable Republicans to get away with gerrymandering simply by staying within the rules of compact districts that split fewer counties or by claiming they're just protecting incumbents.
Eliminating gerrymandering doesn't just require ending one party's unilateral control over the process, as much as that helps. Who gets to draw the lines and the criteria that guide those mapmakers is also of tremendous importance. In a vacuum, this compromise proposal is better than the status quo of GOP legislators having total control over the process. But we aren’t in a vacuum. Republican legislators shrewdly accepted that momentum was building against partisan gerrymandering, and this compromise is quite simply a way to blunt that momentum while preserving as much of their advantage as possible under a false veneer of bipartisanship.