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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.