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‘Unfair’ district maps blamed for broken Congress

GOP, Dem districts have huge disparities in race, poverty and unemployment.


Ohio’s congressional maps, drawn every 10 years by the party in power, now include such a racial, economic and social imbalance that experts say it contributes both to gridlock in Congress and to a lack of understanding by elected representatives of the issues that matter to residents across the partisan divide.

Using new census data, the Dayton Daily News examined Ohio’s 16 congressional districts — represented by 12 Republicans and four Democrats — and found dramatic differences in race and income between the districts dominated by Republicans and those dominated by Democrats.

The maps, drawn in 2011 by Republicans, gave GOP candidates an advantage in most of the races, made few if any districts competitive, and cemented a Republican majority in the state’s congressional makeup that will almost certainly endure for a decade. But experts say an even more significant impact of the partisan district map is its contribution to dysfunction in Washington: Lawmakers in both parties, they say, are rewarded for catering to the extremes of their party and have lost touch with the needs of millions of people in their own state.

The Republican-led redistricting process packed Democratic voters into four urban districts that are by far the poorest districts in the state, and with the highest percentages of minorities and blacks. They also had the highest poverty rate, the lowest median household income and the highest unemployment.

Three of the four Democratic districts also had the lowest median housing value, the lowest rate of home ownership, the highest rate of vacant homes and the lowest percentage of high school graduates.

The districts also don’t represent the Ohio electorate, which is close to evenly divided between the two parties.

In 2012, the state voted for President Obama by 51 percent to 48 percent for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, and for Republican congressional candidates over Democrats by 51 percent to 47 percent. But, under the new Republican-drawn maps, the congressional delegation came out 3-1 for Republicans.

The stark disparities, critics in both parties say, creates a system in which some parts of the population are not fairly represented.

“The way district lines are drawn I believe is one of the greatest contributors to political dysfunction both at the state and federal level,” said Republican state Sen. Frank LaRose of Copley Twp. in Summit County.

LaRose has been working to reform Ohio’s law on redistricting, which he calls a “winner-take-all” system, since he joined the Senate in 2010. He and Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, pushed a reform bill through the Ohio Senate last year that would have set up new bipartisan commission to draw all the districts. It passed the Senate 32-1, but wasn’t approved by the House.

LaRose says he isn’t giving up. He thinks the increased partisan fighting in Congress — perhaps best exemplified by this year’s government shutdown — is convincing people that something has to be done.

“The people of Ohio, I think, have come to the conclusion that the current system is unsustainable,” LaRose said.

Partisan process

The Ohio Apportionment Board, consisting of the governor, state auditor, secretary of state and one legislator from each party, redraws state House and Senate district lines every 10 years to reflect population changes. Meanwhile, the Ohio General Assembly redraws the congressional districts so that they are equal in population. Both bodies are led by Republicans, who have held control of the apportionment board since 1991.

The process of drawing districts for partisan gain, called gerrymandering, is not new. The term was coined by a newspaper cartoonist in 1812 who was satirizing a law passed under the administration of Gov. Elbridge Gerry that consolidated the Federalist Party into a few districts and gave political advantage to the Democratic-Republicans. The outline of one of the districts was thought to resemble a salamander.

Two centuries later, LaRose and others say, political partisans have only gotten better at it. Advances in technology has given the parties the power to tilt the political playing field with much more precision.

”Because of GIS (geographical information systems) technology, because of polling, we know where the Republican households are and where the Democratic households are,” LaRose said. “These lines are drawn surgically for political expedience. And anybody who tells you otherwise is not being forthright.”

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who began working on changing the state’s redistricting laws while in the state legislature in 2005, calls Ohio’s system “broken.”

Since almost all the districts in the state are tilted so heavily toward one party or another, Husted said, if you win the primary you’ve got the job. So candidates only have to worry about convincing the small numbers of more partisan voters who turn out for primaries. In Ohio, that often turns out to be only 10 percent or less of registered voters, he said.

“So the people who essentially elect them to these offices are basically creating an incentive for them to not work with people who are in the middle,” Husted said.

“We should not be surprised that Washington doesn’t work, because we built a system to make it not work.”

The racial and demographic differences of the new maps were a byproduct of attempts to pack as many Democrats into as few districts as possible, experts say.

“The point of gerrymandering has mostly to do with political party,” said Ann Henkening, the redistricting specialist for the Ohio League of Women Voters. “Where do you find the Democrats? You find them in urban areas. What do you also find in urban areas? A lot of the demographics that you listed.”

Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at The Ohio State University, said the demographic and political disparities in the districts take a toll on the perceived fairness of the state’s elections, and in the accuracy with which elected officials actually reflect the political views of the state’s population.

“We’re in an era where social programs are being really cut and sacrificed in many ways,” said Beck, who has extensively studied and written about political parties, voting patterns and public opinion. “They don’t seem to have as much support as they used to have.

“Part of the reason for that is in our redistricting schemes we have concentrated poor voters — people who are in need of these programs — into fewer districts than would have been true in the past.”

The Ohio district with perhaps the oddest shape — and the heaviest concentration of voters from a single party — is the 11th Congressional District of Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Cleveland.

Fudge’s district, which encompasses most of inner Cleveland and crawls salamander-like down to Akron, is the most partisan district in the state, Beck said.

Sixty-two percent of the district is minority, 27 percent of the residents are below the poverty line, 20 percent of the homes are vacant and the unemployment rate — the highest of any district — is 17 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey three-year estimates from 2010 to 2012.

The district voted 83 percent for Obama in 2012; Fudge ran without a Republican opponent.

“What they did was when they were doing the redistricting, they threw every Democratic voter they could get their hands on into that district,” Beck said. “Which, of course, diluted the number of Democrats who were in the adjacent districts. That was done intentionally, and the Democrats would have done the same had they been running things.”

The most heavily Republican district, judging by the 2012 vote, is Speaker John Boehner’s 8th district, which includes all of Clark, Miami, Darke, Preble and Butler counties. That district is less than 6 percent African-American, and the median household income and median housing value is above statewide levels.

The West Chester Twp. Republican’s hold on the district would appear to be impenetrable, at least from Democrats. The district went almost 2-1 for Romney and Boehner — like Fudge — did not have an opponent on the ballot in the general election.

Beck says there is something wrong when a 50-50 state politically has three-quarters of its congressional representatives from one party.

“When you have such a discrepancy in how voters are voting and what the ultimate composition of those bodies are, you really have a system that is very unfair,” he said. “And beyond that, it builds a sense in voters of distrust of the political process.”

Ballot issue possible

Redistricting quickly emerged as a top priority when Columbus attorney and longtime Republican operative Fred Mills convened his committee of the Constitutional Modernization Commission.

Beck, LaRose and Husted have all testified before the committee, which is considering reforms of the legislative and executive branches.

But Husted’s motives have long been questioned by Democrats. After the commission met on Thursday, the party launched an attack on the former state representative and senator from Kettering, saying he worked behind the scenes to draw the map that he now says is unfair.

“Ohioans know when campaign season is coming when Jon Husted comes out and sees his shadow and starts talking about supporting redistricting reform again,” said a statement from Ohio Democratic Party Deputy Communications Director Brian Hester. “Unfortunately, Ohioans also know they can’t trust Jon Husted given his participation in 2011 on secret, private meetings to draw one of the most partisan legislative district maps in Ohio history.”

Husted is being opposed by state Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland, in his run for re-election for Secretary of State.

Mills, who was chief of staff for former Republican Ohio House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, said there is a consensus on his committee that changes are needed, though

many issues still have to be worked out. He said the group has so far agreed that:

  • A bipartisan board should draw both congressional and state legislative district maps;
  • A supermajority of the board must approve the maps, meaning at least one member of the minority party on the board must vote for it.

 

Any changes to the Ohio Constitution must be approved by the full commission, the Ohio General Assembly, and the state’s voters.

Mills said he hopes to have a consensus proposal ready to take to the commission by early spring, so the issue can be put on the November 2014 ballot.

“It’s certainly not a guarantee,” he said. “But that’s the timeframe I’m working on.”

Changing party dynamics

Current social and political trends make it easy for one party to control the process and draw district boundaries that favor their interests, according to David Stebenne, a professor of law and history at Ohio State.

Until recent decades, Stebenne said, the Democratic Party had some strength in the South and in rural America. But that has since eroded, and Democrats are now clustered in urban environments that have little in common with the suburban and rural districts where Republicans are strong.

“The really interesting thing to me as an historian is that there’s never been a Democratic Party like this before,” said Stebenne, who also testified before Mills’ committee. “It’s now a party of major metro America and no more.”

Sabine said the profound differences in districts revealed in the Daily News’ examination make it hard for opposing parties to work out compromises.

“It’s hard for them even to understand each other,” he said.

Stebenne

said any group of partisans on a redistricting board “need some help” from non-partisans to produce a map that is fair to both sides.

“This is not a set of district maps that produces politicians who are free to compromise, even if they want to,” he said. “They are more worried about challenges from their own party, the Democrats from the left, the Republicans from the right.

“So the best people in both parties don’t like this situation. But the really tough question, is once we’ve created it, how do we get out of it?”



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