Did Redistricting Reform Fail in Ohio?

The Ohio voters approved in 2018 a constitutional amendment that would have ended single-party mapping after Republicans had used Ohio’s control over the state government to create politically advantageous congressional and legislative districts maps 10 years ago.

This seems to be a failure.

In a pair of rulings last week, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the proposed maps—congressional, state Senate, and state House district—on the grounds that all three unfairly favored Republicans. Justice Michael Donnelly wrote in a four-to-one opinion that invalidated the congressional plan.

A Princeton Gerrymandering Program analysis found that the proposed congressional map would have provided Republicans an edge in 12 out of the 15 districts. The Princeton Gerrymandering Pro analyzes proposed and enacted maps using a variety of metrics, including geographic compactness and political political competiveness. The Republicans currently control 12 of 16 state congressional seats. Ohio, however, is losing one due to reapportionment.

The proposed map received a grade C for compactness, and not unnecessarily divising too many existing boundaries. However, Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the overall grade F for the underlying political imbalance. According to the group, a fairer map would provide Republicans with an advantage in between 8 and 10 of 15 districts.

While it is not clear exactly what will happen, The Columbus DispatchToday’s reports indicate that the state legislature as well as the new redistricting committee will be back at work creating new maps.

Instead of speculating on what may happen next, it is more beneficial to examine how Ohio got here. Why did the one-sided result occur?

This is due to the 2018 changes that, in spite of claims of reform, left the state legislature and other politicians in charge of the entire process. The constitutional amendment approved by voters created a new redistricting commission for redrawing state House and state Senate districts but left the state’s General Assembly in charge of the congressional district-drawing process—though the amendment did raise the threshold for passing a new map so that 60 percent of both chambers had to approve.

This explains the reason the congressional map turned out the way it did. Republicans control large majority in Ohio General Assembly’s chambers. This allowed them to pass the map that was biased towards Republicans.

However, the commission did not draw a map which could be approved by the court. This is likely because Ohio’s reform, which placed seven state officials at the top of the list of legislative map-making, has not been replicated in other states. There are seven members to the commission: Governor. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and State Auditor Keith Faber are the members of this commission.

This means Ohio’s newly approved (and rejected) district maps is a prime example of “buddymandering,” as Walter Olson, senior fellow at Cato Institute has described it. This is one reason why redistricting reforms sometimes “go off track,” Olson stated in July 2020. There are reasons article. Let politicians take full control over the redistricting process, and you will see other political outcomes.

It is unlikely that any reform will completely remove politics from an already political process. Politicians and political parties have extremely powerful incentives to influence the district-drawing process, so the key is to try and mute that potential influence as much as possible—or, at the very least, to prevent one party from having full control. Effective constitutions keep power from building up in few hands. A redistricting system that is effective diffuses responsibility from the people who are most eager to take it over.

Many states have undertaken reforms—of varying degrees of effectiveness—over the past 10 years, so this redistricting cycle is the first large-scale experiment with what works and what doesn’t. It was clear that Ohio’s ineffective reforms were futile.

There is still hope for reform in other states. Maryland has an example of a nonpartisan citizens redistricting panel that produced a congressional map objectively superior to those produced by the state legislatures. Unfortunately, the lawmakers get to choose which map becomes reality—something that reformers will try to fix before 2030.

Ohio reformers might pay close attention to Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Ohio Supreme Court. O’Connor was a Republican appointee and joined three Democratic appointees on the court’s block to prevent the approval of new state legislative districts maps. O’Connor also noted the obvious advantages of nonpartisan redistricting boards in separate statements.

O’Connor stated that independent redistricting committees are ‘the most effective institutional solution to the problem partisan gerrymandering.’ They increase the separation between map-drawers, partisan politics and map-drawers. “Having now seen firsthand the current Ohio Redistricting Commission—comprised of statewide elected officials and partisan legislators—is seemingly unwilling to put aside partisan concerns as directed by the people’s vote, Ohioans may opt to pursue further constitutional amendment to replace the current commission with a truly independent, nonpartisan commission that more effectively distances the redistricting process from partisan politics.”