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Drawing the Lines in Ohio: A Big Step Forward

Last week, the Secretary of State of Ohio experimented with new process of redistricting, inviting the public to draw their own district maps. This open model could revolutionize the way states think about redistricting reform.

  • Justin Levitt
June 24, 2009

Last week, Ohio voters got a glim­mer of hope for fixing a badly broken redis­trict­ing process. 

In most states, legis­lat­ors get together every ten years, and carve state territ­ory up into districts of voters, more or less as they please.  It’s no surprise that “self-regard­ing interest is predom­in­ant over social interest”: most of the time, the legis­lat­ors draw the lines to bene­fit them­selves and their colleagues, often at the expense of voters in real communit­ies.  Neigh­bor­hoods are split, compet­ing politi­cians are drawn out of conten­tion, groups of citizens are cracked or packed or tacked to break up or over­con­sol­id­ate voting power.  We like to think that voters choose their politi­cians-but in the redis­trict­ing process, politi­cians choose their voters. 

The exist­ing system for draw­ing Ohio’s state legis­lat­ive districts is a bit differ­ent than the norm, but suffers from many of the same prob­lems.  (For Ohio congres­sional districts, the process is the same as the national norm, and just as broken.)  Instead of letting indi­vidual legis­lat­ors tweak their own districts, the state assigns the redis­trict­ing process to a five-person commis­sion: the Governor, the State Auditor, the Secret­ary of State, one person chosen by the Repub­lican legis­lat­ive lead­er­ship, and one person chosen by the Demo­cratic legis­lat­ive lead­er­ship.   

This struc­ture gives substan­tial power to party lead­er­ship and statewide elec­ted offi­cials.  And because of the commis­sion’s setup, one party is always in complete control of draw­ing the lines.  That makes it even easier in Ohio for one party to bend the process to its own designs.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Demo­crats won; in the 1990s and 2000s, Repub­lic­ans won.  And for four decades, real Buck­eyes of all stripes lost.  

Last week, an impress­ive part­ner­ship led by Ohio’s Secret­ary of State, three respec­ted nonpar­tisan nonprofit organ­iz­a­tions, polit­ical scient­ists, and current and former legis­lat­ors showed that there is a better way.  The group set up an open process, invit­ing members of the public to draw district maps accord­ing to a set of care­fully nego­ti­ated rules, and then equipped parti­cipants with the data and the tools to put pen to paper.  The results were announced on Thursday – and on most every metric, the plans that were submit­ted served Ohio voters far better than the real districts that have parti­tioned the state for the last ten years.  

The Secret­ary’s process was a demon­stra­tion, not a legal change to the real-life districts, but that does not mean that it was just an intel­lec­tual exer­cise.  As Heather Gerken has discussed (and discussed and discussed and discussed), with plenty of persuas­ive seconds, these sorts of model insti­tu­tional initi­at­ives have real-world merit.  They provide a solid baseline: a means for the public, legis­lat­ors, and even courts to gauge what equit­able redis­trict­ing might look like, rather than arguing about abstract prin­ciples with no concrete foothold. They offer constitu­ents and media a tool to shame legis­lat­ors into better perform­ance, or at least into justi­fy­ing their decision to depart from the coali­tion’s vision.  And they demon­strate that proced­ural reform is not merely hypo­thet­ic­ally possible, but prag­mat­ic­ally achiev­able, with tangible results.  In the context of a ballot initi­at­ive or a reform bill from within the legis­lature, prospects of success get a lot better with the abil­ity to point to a model that has actu­ally worked. 

The partic­u­lar process that wrapped up last week in Ohio wasn’t perfect; I’ve got a few quibbles with the details, which I’ve laid out in these other posts.  But those concerns should­n’t obscure the substan­tial signi­fic­ance of the process over­all. 

The Secret­ary’s model showed that it’s possible to open up the redis­trict­ing process by giving members of the public the data and computer tech­no­logy to draw and submit their own proposed plans. 

The Secret­ary’s model showed that it’s possible to balance multiple, occa­sion­ally compet­ing, object­ives in draw­ing districts. 

The Secret­ary’s model showed that it’s possible to improve the status quo with a few care­fully tailored constraints that still retain a “human touch in choos­ing among the best plans.” 

And the Secret­ary’s model showed that it’s possible to build a process for select­ing public servants that actu­ally serves the public. 

Which is likely the most import­ant lesson of all.