Ohio voters will decide Tuesday whether to reshape the way congressional lines are drawn in the state.
They’ll be considering Issue 1, a ballot measure to amend the state constitution that would make it much harder for state legislators to draw congressional districts to egregiously benefit whichever party is in power.
Proponents concede the plan isn’t perfect, but say it would be a vast improvement over the current system, which essentially lets the majority draw the map. And it has overwhelming bipartisan support, qualifying for the ballot after a landslide vote in the GOP-controlled Ohio Legislature this February.
“The issue that will be on the ballot this May will be a significant step forward for the state of Ohio,” state Senate President Larry Obhof (R) said at the time. “It will ensure bipartisan cooperation in future congressional redistricting processes. It will help keep communities of interest whole and in particular protect townships, cities, counties from being divided when they don’t need to be.”
The proposal represents an unusual consensus around gerrymandering. For decades, both the Republican and Democratic majorities have used the current system to their respective party’s benefit, often setting off nasty and protracted legal disputes.
It’s an issue that’s playing out in states across the country, and nationally at the U.S. Supreme Court as it tries to figure out if partisan gerrymandering can be so egregious that it violates the U.S. Constitution.
The Ohio measure offers a complicated solution that’s born of bipartisan compromise. The plan ― which would go into effect in 2021 ― is meant to ensure that both parties have a say, setting out four different pathways for the state to adopt a congressional map.
State lawmakers currently control the congressional redistricting process, and they would continue to do so if the proposal passes. However, they would need a 60 percent supermajority to pass a congressional map. Among that 60 percent, they would also need the support of 50 percent of lawmakers in the minority party.
If lawmakers fail to pass a map under those conditions, a seven-member bipartisan commission would take control. To help ensure bipartisan support, the commission could only pass a map if two appointees from the minority party in the Legislature support it.
If the commission can’t agree on a plan, lawmakers would get a second crack. They would still need the support of 60 percent of the Legislature to adopt a plan, but this time they would only need the backing of one-third of the minority party.
“You need to keep these political subdivisions whole. That reins in all kinds of shenanigans.”
And if all that fails, lawmakers could then pass a map with a simple majority vote ― with restrictions. A map that “unduly favors or disfavors” one political party or its incumbents would be prohibited. Likewise for any effort to “unduly split” localities.
Lawmakers would also have to provide a rationale for the map they adopt, and if they go Route No. 4 would have to do the whole thing again in four years ― after two congressional elections ― instead of the usual 10.
The proposal also includes safeguards intended to prevent lawmakers from “cracking” groups of voters among different districts. At least 65 of the state’s 88 counties must remain intact ― that is, they can’t be split between two or more congressional districts. As for counties that do get split up, no more than 18 can be divided between two districts, and no more than five can straddle three.
The public would also have a say, with the right to weigh in through hearings or even to submit outside plans. Advocates say this will make the redistricting process more transparent.
Among the measure’s champions is a coalition called Fair Districts = Fair Elections, which includes good government groups such as the Ohio chapters of the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. They say the proposal will rein in egregious and extreme partisan gerrymandering.
But, importantly, the measure also has buy-in from Republicans, who control both chambers of the Ohio Legislature and currently benefit from gerrymandering.
The GOP controlled the redistricting process in 2011 and drew a congressional plan that heavily favored the party. In every congressional election since, Republicans have been able to win 12 of the state’s 16 congressional seats with only around 50 percent of the statewide popular vote. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that Republicans have two to three additional seats in Congress because of gerrymandering in Ohio.
Richard Gunther, a professor emeritus at Ohio State University who helped draft the proposal, said “the only reason” Republicans were motivated to support the proposal was to head off a competing one. Activists had already collected 225,000 signatures for a separate measure that would have taken redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature entirely and given it to the bipartisan commission. If Issue 1 fails, Gunther said, there will be a push to get that proposal on the November ballot.
Some are uneasy about Issue 1 and question whether it will produce meaningful reform.
Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, wrote in April that the group was staying neutral. He expressed concern that Issue 1 would incentivize the party in power to propose a plan that could only be passed by majority vote.
“Although Issue 1 has some features that could improve redistricting in our state, we believe that it does not provide comprehensive reform and could open the door for future partisan manipulation,” he wrote, adding later: “Even under the methods that do demand some bipartisan support, there remains the potential for coercion of the minority party and deal-making that is not in the best interest of the voters.”
“If one party suspects that the plan favors one party over another, the bill will never pass and the parties will never agree.”
State Rep. Nino Vitale (R), who was one of just 10 members of the Ohio House to vote against putting the plan on the ballot, wrote a Facebook post last month explaining his objections. He said the proposal would likely result in new congressional maps being drawn every four years and wouldn’t reflect the most up-to-date population data since the census is only conducted every 10 years. The proposal would also allow members of the commission to do the bidding of partisan elected officials, he argued.
“If one party suspects that the plan favors one party over another, the bill will never pass and the parties will never agree, almost guaranteeing that the plan with go to the unelected commission,” he wrote. “That’s not good representative government.”
Catherine Turcer, the executive director of Common Cause Ohio who has helped lead the Fair Districts = Fair Elections coalition in Ohio, admitted that the proposal didn’t eliminate “every possible shenanigan.” But she said it would impose strict rules that would limit just how partisan a majority map passed by majority vote could be.
“You have the four-year map, but the rules then become tighter,” she said. “It goes to basically saying you need to keep these political subdivisions whole. That reins in all kinds of shenanigans.”
Plus, she added, requiring lawmakers to provide a justification for the map they adopt would make it easier to challenge the map in court if it is unfair.
The League of Women Voters of Ohio has unsuccessfully pushed to get redistricting reform on the ballot four times since 1981. In 2015, Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed an initiative to put a bipartisan commission in charge of redistricting for the state Legislature.
Gunther recognized that the proposal was imperfect, but acknowledged that because it was a compromise it had “a very strong probability of passage.”
“If we go at it alone, we’re going to be going up against very solid Republican opposition,” he said. “In this particular instance, I’d rather get half a loaf than continue with what we currently have.”