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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.