An End to Gerrymandering in Ohio?

A bipartisan compromise that just passed the state Senate would require minority-party support for political maps, and would limit the number of communities that could be splintered.

Fair Districts members Sam Gresham and Ann Henkener at a press conference in Columbus, Ohio, in January
Fair Districts members Sam Gresham and Ann Henkener at a press conference in Columbus, Ohio, in January (Julie Carr Smyth / AP)

On Monday night, the Ohio state Senate did something truly unprecedented: With near-unanimous support from both Republicans and Democrats, the chamber approved Senate Resolution 5, a measure that would for the first time require bipartisan input and approval for federal congressional maps. The measure is expected to pass the state House today, and it will appear on the ballot in the May primary elections to get final approval from voters.

As it stands, there are few state guidelines on federal redistricting in Ohio. As in most states, the power to create maps rests with the state legislature, which usually means that the party in power—right now, it’s the GOP—ends up calling the shots. There are also few requirements for community disclosure or involvement. The only real constraints that exist are those under federal court rulings and the Voting Rights Act, which prohibit racial gerrymandering and ensure districts have roughly the same populations. So far, the result of those limited rules has been a congressional map that, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, has consistently led to Republican partisan bias.

Senate Resolution 5 would change all that. The proposal would require three-fifths support of the entire legislature to pass a map for use over a 10-year period. The three-fifths must include 50 percent of all members of the minority party. The resolution also sets forth a maximum number of counties that can be split by congressional districts, a provision that should affect district compactness.

If the legislature cannot create maps that follow these rules and secure the requisite support, the task would fall to a seven-member bipartisan commission. Their maps would have to win support from at least two of the minority members of the commission for the adoption process to continue. If the commission fails, the resolution creates two more contingencies: Either the legislature can have another go at creating a 10-year map—this time, only having to secure a third of the minority party’s votes—or it could create a map that only lasts for four years and has much stricter compactness requirements. That four-year map would require a simple majority.

According to the Fair Districts Coalition, a collection of Ohio-based groups pushing for bipartisan redistricting reform, this amendment “creates a bipartisan process that strongly encourages both major parties to cooperate and agree on a congressional map that better represents the views of Ohioans.”

Redistricting reform has been a major issue in Ohio, with strong grassroots support for finding a way to break the partisan monopoly on mapmaking in the state. In 2015, the coalition achieved its first major victory when it ushered through a ballot initiative that reforms the way state General Assembly maps are drawn. The resulting constitutional amendment created a seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission, whose members must include the governor, state auditor, secretary of state, two more political appointees, and at least two members of the minority party. The amendment also implemented strict limits on the number of counties that could be split by General Assembly districts.

The Fair Districts Coalition favored a federal mapmaking plan that used the same commission, thus ensuring the participation of the governor and minority-party representatives. The Senate resolution that passed Monday, however, doesn’t quite meet those demands. The resolution allows the legislature first pass at mapmaking, without the governor’s veto or input; only if that effort fails does the commission come into play. The resolution could also take away key leverage from citizens to vote down political maps.

Still, after months of negotiating—and with Republicans accepting more input than they’d originally planned from the minority partycoalition members seemed content with the outcome. “We wanted bipartisan compromise, which is what this is,” the League of Women Voters of Ohio wrote in a Facebook post Monday evening.

If approved by the people of Ohio in May, the resolution would almost certainly increase the degree of minority-party participation, civic participation, and transparency in political mapmaking. For the time being, Democrats will at least be part of the drawing process. And while the public hearings and input the resolution requires won’t necessarily impact the shapes of districts, they will give people more insight into the process and the political dealings at work.

Still, there are no guarantees in the game of gerrymandering—no way to ensure the maps won’t have flaws. For one, as FiveThirtyEight notes, compactness doesn’t mean fairness, and the resolution doesn’t mandate compactness to begin with. While it would require that 65 of the state’s 88 counties remain undivided, it would allow 18 to be divided once, and another five to be divided as many as three times. With 40 percent of Ohio’s population clustered into its most populous five counties, there are plenty of ways to get politically creative with maps there, even as other counties like Cuyahoga and Summit are divided into fewer districts.

Over time, these new requirements may decrease the runaway partisan advantage Republicans currently enjoy. But as opponents of the resolution’s development plan noted, that advantage makes it easy for Republicans to continue dominating the process in the short term. Of the 132 total seats across both chambers of the General Assembly, Republicans currently hold 90, meaning they already meet the three-fifths-majority clause. Assuming those numbers are roughly similar in 2020 when the next maps are drawn, even if 21 of the 42 Democratic lawmakers hold out on approving a partisan gerrymander—and even if the two Democratic members of the special commission stonewall in the next round—a Republican plan could still win out: Round three would only require approval from 14 Democratic lawmakers to move a map forward.

The resolution still preserves what many believe is the central conflict of interest in American political redistricting: that politicians pick their voters. While ensuring participation from Democratic state lawmakers in the process might mitigate Republican advantage in the future, so-called “bipartisan gerrymanders” still occur in some states where a single party doesn’t hold total dominance over the redistricting process. These gerrymanders don’t necessarily provide fairer, more representative maps. But what they do tend to do is preserve the incumbency of those already in office, thus perpetuating the existing balance—or imbalance—of partisan bias.

Ohio’s new plan could incentivize bipartisan gerrymandering. The minority party under this resolution can really only play the role of spoiler, while the majority faces little penalty for pressing for more advantage. The natural outcome of this impasse is the preservation of the status quo, map-wise. In Ohio, incumbency preservation would likely mean more years of lopsided congressional representation; currently, 11 members of the state’s House delegation are Republicans and four are Democrats. The incumbency incentive is one aspect of gerrymandering that seems likely to continue under any fixes that maintain state legislatures’ redistricting power (as opposed to the ostensibly politically independent commissions created in places like California, where House incumbency cratered in the 2012 elections).

Still, Ohio’s new plan is an important addition to the national redistricting landscape, where many state legislatures and millions of people are reconsidering exactly how political maps are drawn. The next domino to fall could be Ohio’s neighbor Michigan, where activists are submitting petitions to add an initiative to November’s ballot that would create an independent redistricting commission. As the country hurtles toward the 2020 Census, Ohio might be one sign of where states are heading.