Members of both parties have complained about how Ohio’s congressional districts are drawn, which some believe puts too much power in the hands of the legislature and results in lopsided districts that dramatically favor one party over the other.
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Of Ohio’s 16 congressional seats, 13 have a double-digit percentage advantage in favor of the party holding the seat, according to a study by the League of Women Voters of Ohio. And since the 2012 election, no seat has changed hands from one party to the next.
Although the GOP currently controls the process, and 12 of the 16 congressional seats, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Secretary of State Jon Husted — both Republicans — have both advocated for a fairer system for determining how the boundaries are drawn.
But interviews with key Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly show some have little interest in relinquishing power over the congressional map.
“The authority to draw congressional districts lies with the legislature,” said John Fortney, spokesman for State Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina.
Fortney said his boss is willing to discuss changes, but “any attempt to weaken the power of the legislature also weakens the voice of Ohioans who elected their senators and representatives to make those decisions,” he said.
A spokesman for House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, indicated he feels much the same way.
“Even with reforms, it is important that the legislature continue to be in charge of redrawing congressional lines because it is one of the true checks and balances states still have on the federal government,” Rosenberger spokesman Brad Miller said.
Rosenberger had previously said he wants to wait on changes until after the lines are redrawn following the 2020 Census, which advocates fear would effectively push off reform until 2031, or the next time the congressional map changes.
Congressional lines are redrawn every 10 years to reflect changes in the national Census. In Ohio and most other states, the legislature is responsible for the congressional map.
Several area lawmakers said they want to see congressional redistricting reformed along the lines of what voters approved for state legislative districts in 2015. More than 71 percent of Ohio voters said yes to a constitutional amendment that gives responsibility for the redrawing of the state legislative maps to a seven-member bipartisan commission required to create compact, politically competitive districts.
“At a time when many of us are understandably frustrated with many aspects of government and the status quo, I believe it is important to improve the congressional redistricting process to make it more bipartisan, similar to what we passed in 2015 for state legislative districts,” said State Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood.
State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering; State Sen. Bill Beagle, R-Tipp City; State Rep. Mike Henne, R-Clayton; and House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, all said they favored putting a similar issue before voters for redrawing congressional districts.
“The question is, are we making competitiveness a priority and are we keeping actual communities of interest together?” Strahorn said. “Those kinds of things are embedded in Issue 1.”
But other local lawmakers advocated either waiting to make changes or keeping the map-drawing power in the hands of the legislature.
“I’m not sure what it’s prudent to move too fast without seeing the effects of the progress we’ve made in this area,” said Rep. Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek.
‘Lets get the show on the road’
Kasich had earlier said he planned to put a redistricting proposal in the state budget that he will unveil on Monday, but last week he backed off that plan. Press Secretary Emmalee Kalmbach, however, said the governor is still interested in reform.
“The governor is working with legislative leaders to find the best path forward on redistricting reform and is encouraged by their commitment on this important issue,” she said.
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Husted, long an advocate for redistricting reform, said the lawmakers he’s talked to aren’t interested in making it part of the budget process, which is primarily about deciding how the state spends its money.
“That doesn’t mean the governor shouldn’t push and advance the issue,” said Husted, who is often mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2018. “You have to keep it on people’s agenda to ever get it enacted.”
A coalition of groups — Fair Districts = Fair Elections — is pitching a plan that essentially mirrors Issue 1, and it plans to move forward if the legislature doesn’t act to put an amendment on the November ballot. Catherine Turcer, policy analyst for coalition partner Common Cause Ohio, said the group would shoot to get the issue on the ballot this year or in 2018.
Turcer said much of the public thinks the system has already been reformed, believing Issue 1 covered congressional seats as well.
“Ohioans have been talking about redistricting reform for years and years,” she said. “Lets get the show on the road.”
The redrawing of congressional boundaries has been a hot political topic, and also a legal one. The U.S. Supreme Court last year settled one case that impacts Ohio when it ruled that legislatures can turn the responsibility over drawing congressional boundaries to independent commissions like the one proposed for Ohio.
There are rules that map-makers must follow. Each district must contain approximately the same number of people and comply with the federal Voting Rights Act by not denying or abridging “the right to vote based on race, color or membership in a language minority,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
But there is no prohibition about over-packing districts with members of a particular political party — a practice known as gerrymandering — and there is plenty of evidence that both parties have done so while in the majority.
“Gerrymandering is an enduring tradition of American politics,” said Christopher Devine, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton.
In the states where reform has occurred, the districts have become more politically competitive, said Lee Hannah, assistant professor of political science at Wright State University.
Some advocates of reform, such as Turcer, believe having districts that are more balanced between Republicans and Democrats would reduce political extremism and divisiveness.
“Manipulated districts manipulate elections,” Turcer said. “We are unable to hold our elected officials accountable because they basically know they are going to win because their seat is so safe.”
Others say the current system does give voters choice every two years when they can vote out incumbents. And some say the districts in Ohio aren’t really so out of whack when you look at the state’s voting patterns. Although Barack Obama carried Ohio twice as a Democrat for president, Republicans have mostly swept all statewide races in recent years. In November, President Donald Trump won Ohio by more than 8 percentage points.
But the analysis by the League of Women Voters of Ohio, which is one of the groups advocating for redistricting reform, shows congressional elections are rarely competitive.
Ann Henkener, the league’s redistricting specialist, said the result “makes our congressional delegation as a whole very unrepresentative of the political thoughts and inclinations of Ohio voters.
“What we are trying to do is make sure that the districts are not drawn to purposefully and disproportionately favor whatever political party is drawing them,” she said.
Is Ohio a one-party state?
Political experts say there is no way to reach an even 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans in districts, because that is not how people of various political persuasions distribute themselves in the state.
Turcer acknowledges that, but says the political makeup of the state’s districts as a whole should reflect the population’s political mix and also keep counties and communities together where possible.
Strongly partisan districts make it hard for the minority party to field and fund viable candidates, said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. It also hinders the minority party’s ability to develop a “bench” of future candidates.
“That’s how one-party states develop,” said Smith. “The main party just chokes out the competition and there’s not viable candidates out there to run against them. We saw that for 100 years throughout the South. In that case it was the Democrats.”
Hannah said there are reasons Republicans should endorse reform. While the GOP controls politics in Ohio for now, a lot can happen between now and 2021, when the lines are redrawn.
If no changes are made and Democrats somehow took control, they would be the party controlling the congressional map-making, Hannah points out.
“If there’s a huge wave against Trump in 2020 (Republicans) are going to be on the outside looking in,” he said.
Political affiliation of voters - Ohio congressional districts
Fair Districts = Fair Elections Congressional redistricting reform proposal
- State legislature would no longer redraw Congressional lines.
- Ohio Redistricting Commission would have seven members: Ohio governor, secretary of state, state auditor and four legislative appointees, including at least two from the minority party.
- Require compact and contiguous districts.
- District must not favor one party over another.
- Ohio’s district’s as a group must reflect partisan preferences of voters of Ohio based on 10 years of statewide general election results.
- No member of Congress can sit on panel.
- Transparent process, including public hearings.
Source Fair Districts = Fair Elections