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Redistricting Reform Wins Big in Ohio

With voter approval of Ohio’s Issue 1 in Tuesday’s election, a new commission will be formed and fundamentally reshape how district lines are drawn for the state’s House and Senate.

November 5, 2015

The three-decade history of failed efforts to tackle gerry­man­der­ing in Ohio ended Tues­day when voters over­whelm­ingly approved Issue 1, a consti­tu­tional amend­ment to create a bipar­tisan redis­trict­ing commis­sion to draw legis­lat­ive districts start­ing in 2021.

The new commis­sion will funda­ment­ally reshape how district lines are drawn for the state House and Senate. Although the amend­ment does not cover congres­sional redis­trict­ing, two state senat­ors have proposed a plan to expand the commis­sion’s author­ity to include congres­sional lines.

The amend­ment changes Ohio’s redis­trict­ing in several ways:

Expan­sion of the Commis­sion:

Until now, redis­trict­ing was in the hands of a five-member Appor­tion­ment Board consist­ing of the governor, secret­ary of state, auditor of state, and two members repres­ent­ing the two main parties in the legis­lature. Not only did this mean the Board consisted entirely of elec­ted offi­cials, but it meant that a major party could be repres­en­ted by as few as one member, as happened to Demo­crats in 2011.

With the passage of Issue 1, the commis­sion will expand from five to seven members, with each major­ity and minor­ity leader in the legis­lature appoint­ing a commis­sioner. This larger commis­sion will not only guar­an­tee at least two seats to the minor­ity party, but its expan­ded size will make it easier to more fully reflect the state’s demo­graphic and geographic diversity. And for the first time ever, every­day citizens, and not just office­hold­ers, could be part of the commis­sion.

Tougher Rules:

Mapdraw­ing in 2021 will be governed by a much tougher set of rules than in 2011.

Histor­ic­ally, rules govern­ing redis­trict­ing in Ohio were vague and left signi­fic­ant discre­tion in the hands of elec­ted offi­cials, who, regard­less of party, routinely took advant­age of the situ­ation to manip­u­late lines to favor incum­bents or maxim­ize partisan gain. Not surpris­ingly, Ohio’s maps have been ranked as among the most gerry­mandered in the nation.

New rules for the commis­sion will curb the worst redis­trict­ing abuses. Mapdraw­ers must adhere to an express and judi­cially enforce­able provi­sion prohib­it­ing partisan gerry­man­der­ing. The commis­sion is also required to try to draw districts so the number of seats each party is likely to win mirrors its share of the statewide vote. The adop­tion of similar object­ive rules in Flor­ida was crit­ical in enabling courts this year for the first time to strike down maps drawn for partisan reas­ons.

Tying seats to each party’s statewide vote share could also act as a cata­lyst for voter engage­ment and parti­cip­a­tion since parties will have an incent­ive to turn out as many voters as possible.

Incent­ives for Bipar­tisan Map Approval:

The amend­ment also encour­ages, if not requires, bipar­tis­an­ship in mapdraw­ing.

In the past, the major­ity party on the Appor­tion­ment Board was able to rail­road district maps to approval without support from the minor­ity party. There was no incent­ive to comprom­ise since one party could control the redis­trict­ing process with noth­ing more than a simple major­ity.

The new system is designed to remove major­ity party domin­ance. For a map to be valid for the whole decade, it must win the approval of at least two members of each party. A map can still be approved by the commis­sion without minor­ity support, but it would remain in effect for only four years before having to be redrawn. This approval mech­an­ism uses the uncer­tainty of elect­oral polit­ics to foster comprom­ise. In theory, it should motiv­ate the major­ity to work with the minor­ity to pass a perman­ent map because there is no guar­an­tee the major­ity party will be in power four years in the future. Although this process does not go as far as Cali­for­ni­a’s commis­sion in requir­ing minor­ity approval for any map, it provides an incent­ive that was wholly absent in the old system.

After the fail­ures of ballot initi­at­ives to create redis­trict­ing commis­sions in 1981, 2005, and 2012, many thought Ohio redis­trict­ing reform was impossible. But unlike those previ­ous attempts, lawmakers and reformers were able to come together and craft a plan that not only won support of both parties, but of groups as diverse as the NAACP and Ohio Cham­ber of Commerce. As efforts move forward to reform redis­trict­ing in states like Illinois, perhaps Ohio will be a model and a beacon.

(Photo: Think­stock)