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Drawing the Lines in Ohio: The Devilish Details

In allowing citizens to draw their own district maps, Ohio set four goals: preserving communities, compactness, competitiveness, and representational fairness. How did they measure up?

  • Justin Levitt
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.