Drawing the Lines in Ohio: The Devilish Details

June 21, 2009

In two earlier posts, I discussed
the existence of a recent redistricting competition
in Ohio, and its basic structure, and found much
to praise.  The competition gave citizens the tools to draw their
own congressional district maps according to a set of carefully negotiated
rules
.  After
accounting for required federal law, the remaining rules represent policy
choices.  Here, in the weeds, there may still be room for improvement
before translating the model directly to real-world reform.   

Let's take a closer look
at each of the four subsidiary goals that the Ohio competition built
in to the process, and the means for measuring plans up against those
goals.  (Each of these goals is examined in much more detail in A Citizen's
Guide to Redistricting
.) 

The first goal was preserving
communities
: giving voters with similar interests meaningful representation,
by keeping them in the same district, rather than dividing them into
groups too small for candidates to care about.  In my mind, after
the "one-person, one-vote" and minority rights concerns of federal
law, this is the single most important idea behind redistricting. 
It's also one of the hardest to measure objectively.  

The Ohio competition used a
common proxy: assume that a county represents a community, and then
split counties as little as possible.  They also built in an important
exception for cities like Columbus that cross county lines: because
Columbus spills out of Franklin County into bits of Delaware and Fairfield
Counties, it's OK to keep the bits of Columbus outside Franklin together
with the bits inside Franklin, even if it means dividing some Delaware
or Fairfield residents from others.  

The organizers described this
rule as "opening a dialogue" about the means to measure communities,
and I think that's exactly the right approach.  After the competition,
the dialogue continued: the organizers looked at the results, and thought
that it made sense to add an additional condition.  In some cases,
getting equal population within each district makes splitting a county
inevitable; when that happens, the lines should split municipal boundaries as little as possible.  That
is, both counties and towns would be used as proxies for communities. 

That's a welcome step, but
it should not be the end of the conversation.  There's a real
opportunity to test how close the proxy comes to reality.  In the
near future, we may be able to lay
out community borders

that are just as tangible as county lines, by aggregating lots of people's
perceived community boundaries - but we're not quite there yet. 
Short of that, some states offer public hearings on proposed redistricting
plans, to let people articulate how a map would affect the communities
to which they belong - but Ohio hasn't yet joined that club either. 
So I'd urge the organizers of the Ohio exercise to fill in those blanks,
soliciting public feedback on particular communities that cross county
or city lines.  If there are few, the proxy works pretty well in
Ohio.  If there are plenty, well, maybe the proxy needs adjusting.

The second goal was compactness:
keeping districts close to regular geometric shapes so that they don't
look "bizarre."  In my mind, this is one of the most accessible,
but least useful, goals commonly cited in reform.  We have a common
intuition that some districts look bizarre.  So what?  A district
that's a perfect circle is compact, by most any measure.  So
what?  Aesthetic appeal has little to do with the quality of representation.  Maryland and Michigan have "bizarre" boundaries, but
voters in those states are not more poorly served because of the shape
of their borders than are voters in the rectangles of Colorado or Wyoming.  And Illinois' fourth
Congressional district

is routinely cited as one of the most "contorted" in the country,
but it gave Illinois its first majority-Hispanic district.  Whether
a district is pretty doesn't tell me anything about what it's doing
for the citizens within, or whether it fits the patterns of where people
actually live.   

Most often, reformers seem
to turn to compactness to limit legislators' self-interest. 
Because we don't trust the people drawing the lines, we suspect that
bizarre lines involve self-dealing, and we therefore look to geometric
rules to try to smooth the lines out.  On its own, this is a legitimate
concern and an understandable, if blunt, response.  Yet the Ohio
competition's push to preserve counties and cities already limits
the most unjustified spidery twists and turns.  In the absence
of decisionmakers we trust, it may be worth contemplating a limited
role for compactness within a county - if a county is to be
split, there's a small reward for splitting it "nicely." But
as a hedge against self-dealing, broader compactness formulas don't
accomplish much that the community preservation goal above doesn't
already handle better.  

Other reformers turn to compactness
to help keep districts regional: voters in the south of the state are
grouped with other southern voters, rather than with voters farther
away.  This is a rough approximation of common interest, at best. 
(For example, a district stretching along the Pacific may better represent
voters with a common
interest in that coastline

than a regional district joining them with voters farther inland.) 
Moreover, the compactness measure that the Ohio organizers chose (there
are more
than 30 options
)
doesn't fit this goal very well.  The Ohio competition's measure
penalizes squiggly boundaries, which does little to stop spread, and
punishes
plans for following borders of less regular "communities"
like Noble
County
or Columbus.  A better way to keep districts
regional would focus on the extent to which a district stretches out
from a central core, known in the trade as "dispersion." 

The third goal was competitiveness:
creating districts where the voters are roughly half Democrats and half
Republicans.  In part, this helps ensure that incumbents aren't
insulated from losing if they're not responsive to their constituents
... though even in a district that's wildly skewed to one party or
another, an unresponsive incumbent can be challenged in a primary. 
More important, competitive districts set up an even playing field for
the political parties as a whole, allowing legislative delegations to
reflect changes in the partisan mood.  If a fair number of districts
are roughly half Democrat and half Republican, a shift in the overall
partisan preference can theoretically translate to a shift in the control
of the legislature.   

It's worth noting, however,
that because of candidates' name recognition, fundraising prowess, campaign skill, and a host of other
issues, competitive districts often don't deliver competitive elections. 
That is, you can still get a lopsided election from a 50-50 district. 
When Ohio's current congressional districts were drawn in 2001, 7
were "generally" or "heavily" competitive, with a partisan spread
of less than 55-45.  Yet in those districts' first elections, not one race was within 10 points,
and the seven districts in question were won by an average of 65-35.   

The fourth goal was representational
fairness
, which measures the map as a whole rather than any individual
district: a plan does better if the number of expected winners from
each party is roughly in line with the total vote statewide.  So
if the states' voters as a whole are 50-50, there should be the same
number of districts leaning Republican as those that lean Democratic;
if the state as a whole splits 70-30, so (more or less) should the state's
legislative delegation.  Intuitively, this goal makes sense: a
fair system should try to make sure that the representatives of the
state, as a whole, reflect the state as a whole. 

The particular rule used in
the competition has a curious twist, though: it cares whether a district
is leaning Republican or leaning Democratic, but not by how much. 
That is, districts leaning Republican by .04% get the same credit as
districts leaning Republican by 40%, even though the former are much
more likely to end up with Democratic representatives.  At the
end of the day, by looking only at whether a district is theoretically
on one side of the partisan divide or the other, plans that score quite
well on "representational fairness" could end up predictably giving
most of the legislative seats to the party that loses the statewide
vote. And that hardly seems representationally fair. 

As the discussion above shows,
there's a fair amount of tension between drawing districts that are
individually competitive (nobody knows who wins which seats) and drawing
districts to ensure representative fairness (Dems win X seats, Reps
win Y seats).  And to the extent that voters with common interests
tend to favor the same party, there's a lot of tension between drawing
districts that preserve communities (mostly one party) and districts
that are competitive (50-50).  Rob Richie has proposed a system
of "accountability
seats
" to try
to relieve these tensions, removing the need to move voters around in
order to get the partisan mix just right.  The idea would allocate
a few reserved legislative seats based on the statewide vote, to balance
the legislative delegation so that it looks like the state as a whole. 

The "accountability seat"
system could solve an awful lot of the current redistricting struggle,
but it also represents a fairly big structural change.  Ohio's
recent competition process represents a different innovative way to
address goals that may be in conflict, by compromising a bit on each
objective.  The critiques above - suggestions to give a goal
more or less weight, or to change the nature of the measurement slightly
- are quibbles on the margins, things to address now that the dialogue
has been opened.  The partnership
behind Ohio's latest endeavor

deserves a strong vote of thanks for starting the conversation.