The process for drawing legislative district boundaries in Ohio allows the
party with control of reapportionment, be it Republicans or Democrats, to
draw those lines in ways that protect its incumbent officeholders and advance
its own interests.
Prior to the 1960s, many states had not redrawn their state legislative district boundaries for many years, resulting in rural areas being overrepresented and urban and suburban areas being underrepresented. A series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s mandated decennial redrawing of state legislative district boundaries and required that representation in both houses of the state legislature be based on population.
After these rulings, Ohio established a 99-member State House of Representatives with two-year terms and a 33-member State Senate with staggered four-year terms, with both chambers representation based on population. Ohio also adopted a new mechanism the Reapportionment Board to redraw the boundaries of the state legislative districts after each decennial census.
The Reapportionment Board is composed of five members: the Governor, the Secretary of State, the Auditor of State, one legislative Democrat, and one legislative Republican. Thus, whichever party wins two of the three statewide offices controls the redistricting process for state legislative seats.
The redrawing of U. S. House district boundaries is done by an act of
the state legislature subject to the approval of the Governor. If one
party controls the Ohio House, the Ohio Senate, and the governorship,
it can maximize the number of seats drawn so as to favor the dominant
party. When there is split control, the two parties must necessarily limit
their aspirations and arrive at some sort of compromise in congressional
From the outset, the Ohio Reapportionment Board has acted in a very partisan fashion. Whichever party controls the Board seeks to maximize the number of seats it can win. It does this by creating a large number of seats that are reasonably safe for the majority party and a smaller number of districts extremely safe for the minority party. The process results in most state legislative districts being solidly held by one party and uncompetitive in the general election an outcome that occurs in most states that employ partisan redistricting methods. The meaningful election is thus the primary and not the general election.
This process has negative consequences for Ohio and, more broadly, for American politics. For example, many voters do not have a meaningful choice in November, the election outcome having been foreordained by partisan redistricting and by the electoral advantages that incumbent officeholders possess. In addition, the ultimate distribution of seats in the state legislature may not reflect the overall popular vote totals in legislative elections.
For example, in the 2004 Ohio elections, Republican candidates for the Ohio House received just 50.8 percent of the overall popular vote, but still won almost 60 percent of the seats. How did this happen? The Republican-controlled Reapportionment Board in 2001 drew many overwhelmingly Democratic districts such that the Democrats won these districts with very large margins, thereby wasting many Democratic votes. Likewise, in 2004 U.S. House races, Republican candidates received 51.1 percent of the popular vote but still won two-thirds of the 18 House seats. This was the result of the Republican legislature having drawn a pro-Republican congressional redistricting map in 2001, which was approved by the Republican Governor.
When Democrats controlled the redistricting process, they acted in much the same way. For example, in the 1970 statewide elections, Democrats won control of the Reapportionment Board and redrew the state legislative districts the following year. Although the Democrats increased their share of the Ohio House popular vote by only one percent between 1970 and 1972, they increased their number of seats in the Ohio House of Representative from 45 to 59. As computer programs and elections data have become more sophisticated, control of the redistricting process is even more important.
Another undesirable outcome of the current redistricting process is that it contributes to legislative polarization at the state and national levels. When the outcome of the general election is a foregone conclusion, the important battle is the Republican or Democratic primary. To win the Republican primary, candidates often move to the right because that is where the political activists and primary voters tend to be. By the same token, to win the Democratic primary, candidates typically move to the left. In a district that is heavily Republican or heavily Democratic, the winner of the dominant partys primary has no reason to move to the center in the general election. The consequence is to elect Republicans who are more conservative than the average rank-and-file Republican, and Democrats who are more liberal than the average rank-and-file Democrat. It is little wonder that legislative bodies are so polarized and that many citizens feel that the choices offered to them are so inadequate.
FINDING: Because the parties have strong incentives to maintain the present redistricting system, reform in this area will require a sustained and long-term public education campaign.
It is very difficult to reform a partisan redistricting process. The party that currently controls and benefits by the process will typically oppose reform. Even the party that is currently disadvantaged may be unenthusiastic about reform, at least when that party believes it has a good chance to regain control over the redistricting process.
Due to the concerns set forth above, there have been numerous efforts in the last 25 years to reform the redistricting process in Ohio. All of these efforts have failed. Typically, though not consistently, the party that controlled the process saw no need for change, while the other major party was more likely to support reform. In 1981, a constitutional amendment was placed on the Ohio ballot to change the method of redistricting to a more formulaic, mathematical approach that favored compact districts. This amendment was supported by good government organizations such as the League of Women Voters as well as by the Ohio Republican Party. It was opposed by the Democrats and their allies, who at that time controlled the redistricting process and saw no need to change it. The amendment was soundly rejected by the voters.
Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s the League and its allies tried to keep redistricting on the front burner. When Democrats lost control of the Reapportionment Board in 1990, they became more sympathetic to changing the system but unsurprisingly, Republicans had lost their enthusiasm for change. The Republicans held on to the Reapportionment Board, the legislature, and the Governors office through the 2000 elections and thus saw no need to change the system for the post-2000 redistricting.
In 2005, a coalition of individuals and organizations came together under the rubric of Reform Ohio Now (RON) to promote a package of four constitutional amendments, one of which dealt with redistricting. The RON redistricting amendment took a formulaic, mathematical approach, only this time the number one criterion was competitiveness. Among a set of qualifying plans, the one that was to be selected was the one that created the greatest number of competitive districts.
RON included some academics, some good government organizations, some labor unions, and some Democrats but very few Republicans. Ultimately, the Ohio Republican Party and many prominent Republicans opposed the RON amendments. The Ohio Democratic Party did not endorse the amendments. Some county Democratic Party organizations endorsed the amendments, and some Democrats opposed the amendments, including the chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.
The RON amendments were overwhelmingly rejected by the voters. The Republican opposition was not surprising since the GOP controlled the existing process. But the tepid Democratic organizational support was somewhat surprising. One explanation given for the weak Democratic support was the expectation of many Democrats that they would sweep the 2006 elections and thus control the post-2010 redistricting process. On this line of thinking, there was no reason to change the process, when they might be in the position to do to the Republicans what the GOP had done to them in previous redistricting plans.
2006 saw another effort to enact redistricting reform, this one led by Republicans. During the debate over the RON redistricting amendment in 2005, its leading Republican opponents House Speaker Jon Husted and Representative Kevin DeWine acknowledged that the current system of redistricting was flawed. While arguing that the RON amendment was not the solution, they pledged to take up the issue of redistricting reform in 2006, if it were defeated.
Speaker Husted and Representative DeWine kept their word, negotiating with various reform groups and some Democrats. Their proposal would have placed Ohio in a national leadership position, since it explicitly included competition as a criterion in choosing a redistricting plan, while balancing competitiveness with other criteria such as compactness. When the time came for a legislative vote to approve an amendment for the ballot, only one Democrat supported the proposal and it failed. While the reasons for this result are complex, it appears that Democrats did not trust the Republicans, did not want the Republicans to get credit for political reform, and perhaps most importantly believed that there was no need to change a system that might soon benefit them.
Ohio thus still has a partisan system of redistricting in place. The next redistricting will take place in 2011, after the 2010 census. If the system is not changed, control of the Reapportionment Board will be determined by the outcome of the 2010 statewide elections. Both political parties are already looking to the 2006 election outcomes in the Governor, Secretary of State, and Auditor contests, because whichever party wins at least two of these three contests can expect to have incumbents seeking re-election in 2010 and thus to have an advantage in controlling the Reapportionment Board. At this stage, the political and partisan climate in Ohio does not bode well for legislative redistricting reform. None of the candidates for statewide office in 2006 have made reform a high priority.
Any reforms to be considered in future years must of course take into account such traditional factors as the equal population requirement, minority voting rights, contiguity, and compactness. But ideally, competitiveness should also be a factor in drawing a redistricting plan. It would also be desirable to have an independent bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting commission that has some limited discretion to oversee the process and insure that the selected plan is a sound one. It would also be desirable to allow any individual or group to submit its own plan, a proposal that the League of Women Voters has consistently supported. In general, the process should be characterized by transparency and public participation. This in turn would require that the State of Ohio provide the necessary election information so that various entities including members of the public and nonpartisan groups can construct their own plans.
Finally, it would be a good idea to require as a matter of law that redistricting may occur just once a decade, after each decennial census. This would head off the political games that we have witnessed in other states, as political control changed hands and re-redistricting occurred in mid-decade. At present, it appears unlikely that Congress will take over responsibility for redistricting from the states, or take action to forbid mid-decade redistricting. While redistricting cases will inevitably make their way to the U.S. Supreme Court, it is not likely that the Court will impose limits on partisan gerrymandering any time soon. That is particularly true after its recent decision in LULAC v. Perry, which upheld the constitutionality of Texas 2003 re-redistricting plan.
It thus appears likely that the states will be left with responsibility
for reforming their own redistricting systems. In the ideal world, the
states would indeed be laboratories of democracy where different states
would test different solutions and one could observe what worked and did
not work in various settings. Unfortunately, Ohio does not appear poised
to participate in such experimentation. It will probably take a good deal
of public education for citizens to understand the problems in the current
system and for the political will for real redistricting reform to develop.
In addition to satisfying certain traditional reapportionment requirements (such as contiguity, population equality, and protection of minority rights), redistricting should take into account competitiveness. Increasing the number of competitive districts would help mitigate the consequences of Ohios current partisan system, including the states large number of safe districts and increasingly polarized legislative delegations.
The power to draw Ohios legislative and congressional district boundaries should be vested in a commission which ideally should be independent and nonpartisan or at a minimum bipartisan. Such a commission should be granted sufficient discretion and resources to accomplish its work while being appropriately constrained and guided so as to produce a desirable redistricting plan.
The public and community groups should be offered opportunities to submit their own redistricting plans to the commission. In the interest of transparency and encouraging citizen participation, the commission should be required to make raw census data and related information available to individuals and groups interested in developing their own plans.
Ohio law should specify that redistricting will be conducted once a decade
in order to avoid political games and power plays.