Ohio's Redistricting Victory

There were two stories from last night's election results that were immediately spun as "wins" for Democrats and progressives: a ballot measure in Ohio concerning state legislative redistricting, and three Democrats winning state supreme court seats in Pennsylvania. But only the Pennsylvania one is really a partisan victory -- the Ohio measure is instead a victory for representative democracy itself (even if Democrats will be the ones to benefit from the change).

Redistricting is about as wonky a subject as can be imagined in American politics, and it only gets attention from serious partisans because they know it can affect their party's chances in overwhelming ways. Most people only have a vague idea of the concept of redistricting, although pretty much everyone knows the term "gerrymandering."

Redistricting is exactly what it sounds like -- redrawing the lines of legislative districts. On the national level, it happens once every ten years, right after the U.S. Census. Depending on the population shifts among the states, some states get more seats in the House of Representatives, and some get fewer. All states, however, get a chance to redraw the lines for all the House districts within their states (well, all states that have more than one member of the House, to be technically accurate -- after all, if there's only one district, it has to be the shape of the state itself). Also redrawn are state-level districts, for the state senate and the state assembly.

It's a wonkish subject, to be sure. But the results can be alarmingly tilted towards one party at the expense of the other, which is why it is a subject people should care about. Redistricting, to use the most obvious example, is why Democrats are not likely to take the House back until 2022, when the new districts are redrawn after the 2020 Census. Gerrymandering by Republicans has pretty much locked in a majority until then.

Which is why the victories in Ohio and Pennsylvania are so important. Ohio voted for President Obama, twice. So did Pennsylvania, by even bigger margins (Obama won the state by five points in 2012 and a whopping 11 points in 2008). However, the current makeup of the House seats from Ohio is 12 Republicans to four Democrats. In Pennsylvania, it is 13 Republicans to five Democrats. Even though both states voted Democratic in 2012 and 2008. That's the power of gerrymandering.

At the state level, the problem is even worse:

Take the example of the 2012 election. Democratic candidates for the Ohio House received over 55,000 more votes than the Republicans. Yet gerrymandered districts led the Republican Party to win a supermajority of 60 out of 99 seats.

When you look at Congressional districts, this distortion is even more extreme. Republicans won 75 percent of the seats after having received just 52 percent of the vote in 2012. They held onto 75 percent of the seats with just 57 percent percent of the vote in 2014.

There's an obvious answer to the problem, and that is to take the power of redistricting entirely away from the politicians. This has been slowly happening, in state after state, mostly through ballot measures. The practice was upheld in a very important Supreme Court decision last year, which opened the door for other states to join the growing movement to end (or at least lessen) all the rampant gerrymandering for political gain.

It's not that hard to draw fair districts. Computer programs can do so very easily. Keeping district lines simple is really just a matter of basic geometry (with a little cartography thrown in). I strongly support all such efforts, and have for quite some time. California, where I live, passed a redistricting reform which seems to be working out just fine. You'll note that California is a dark-blue Democratic state, which means the redistricting hanky-panky here used to benefit Democrats. Reform benefited Republicans, at least initially. That doesn't matter to me, because I support non-political redistricting on principle alone -- no matter which party stands to benefit from any particular reform effort.

The election results in both Ohio and Pennsylvania do not constitute true and complete reform, however. In Pennsylvania, the result will be indirect. The state supreme court gets to appoint the deciding vote on a five-person redistricting panel. With the court in Democratic control, that will give Democrats a clear advantage. This will, hopefully, rectify the imbalance in the state's House delegation to some degree or another. But it's not really reform, it's just the Democrats now getting to stack the deck instead of Republicans. So while the partisan part of me cheers, the non-partisan part is not very impressed.

In Ohio, the reform is real, but it is (so far) of a limited nature. The ballot initiative only dealt with state district lines, meaning the balance of power in the state legislature could be swiftly corrected. But instead of just rigging the process the other way, the districts will be drawn without regard to partisan gain -- meaning Democrats will probably initially pick up seats, but all districts may become more competitive for both parties. But, again, the reform only deals with the state legislature, and not the districts for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Still, the Ohio ballot measure's victory is a big step in the right direction. It shows the citizens are in favor of fairness over partisanship. Hopefully, in a future election, a successful ballot measure will apply the same system to the U.S. House district lines as well (hopefully, this will happen before 2022).

Redistricting reform shouldn't even be a partisan issue. It's a question of fairness, and competitiveness. Rather than picking "safe" districts, packed with one party's voters, districts should be drawn geographically, to keep regions together within compact district lines. However, since redistricting is always a partisan issue, in each state that attempts it the party in power will push back hard on any reform ideas.

This isn't anything new. The word "gerrymander" was coined in 1812, to describe a district the governor of Massachusetts had created (his name was Gerry, it looked like a salamander; hence the term) for partisan advantage. It's been a part of American politics since the very beginning, in other words. But "we've always done it that way" is not really a valid reason to continue a system that is patently unfair to one party or the other. California, Arizona (where the Supreme Court case arose), and over 10 other states have already reformed the process to varying degrees. Ohio will now join them, at least for the state-level legislative districts. This is good for democracy. Voters should pick their politicians, not the other way around.

If this movement continues to grow, it will disadvantage Democrats in some states, and Republicans in others. I don't care. Let the chips fall where they may. If, sooner or later, every state de-politicizes the process of drawing district lines, then the House of Representatives will get a lot closer to an accurate representation of the makeup of the American electorate. Gerrymandering will become a quaint term that only political historians even recognize. And that will be a victory for everyone.


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