By: Spencer Murray
In 2015, Ohio voters approved a state constitutional amendment that reformed the process for drawing district lines for the state legislature. Previously, state legislative redistricting had been managed by a five-member Apportionment Board, consisting of the governor, the secretary of state, the state auditor, and one member of the state legislature from both parties. New district lines only required a simple majority vote to enter into effect.
The amendment, Issue 1 on the 2015 ballot, enlarged (and renamed the board to the Ohio Redistricting Commission) the Apportionment Board by two members by adding a member of each party from the state legislature. Issue 1 also reformed the procedures of the board, particularly how it approves district maps. The Commission must now have votes in favor of a map by at least two members of the minority party for the district maps to be in force for a full ten years. However, if this requirement is not met, then the district maps will be in force for only four years and new maps will be drawn at the end of that time period.
Beyond adjusting the approval process, Issue 1 changed the criteria the Commission must use in drawing state legislative districts in order to combat some fairly popular gerrymandering tactics used across the United States. Issue 1 requires the Commission to split as few municipalities as possible in drawing lines and must justify any municipality or county splits when presenting their plan to the state legislature. The amendment forbids a districting plan from favoring one party and the districts must be compact. The Commission should draw districts such that the proportion of districts that favor any party should closely match the statewide preference of Ohio voters. Additionally, the Commission must hold at least three public hearings across the state.
This new commission should produce maps that are much fairer than Ohio’s previous maps. The Cleveland Plain Dealer notes that the State’s congressional districts, which are drawn under the same system the state legislative districts were previously, have produced maps where no congressional seat has changed hands since the map went into effect and where Republicans won 75% of the congressional seats while earning only 56% of the overall vote. The requirement for minority support and limits on districting tactics should resolve some of the discrepancies between statewide vote proportion and elected representation. However, the new Commission is not without its weaknesses.
First, and perhaps most importantly, the Commission does not require bipartisan support to implement any maps at all. Rather, maps may be put into place that that last for four years without the minority party’s votes. There is no protection within the law against a majority party simply repeating that procedure once the four years have run out for those maps.
Second, while there are protections in place within Issue 1 to prevent typical gerrymandering tactics, previous experience in other states have shown that those protections may be hard or impossible to enforce. For example, in Florida, voters passed a constitutional amendment forbidding legislators from taking partisan politics into consideration when drawing district lines. Despite that, an Associated Press analysis found that Florida Republicans held eleven more state house seats than they would have under a true “neutral” map.
Despite these weaknesses, the new Ohio Redistricting Commission is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. The protections in place should protect Ohio voters from the worst abuses of political gerrymandering while also promoting fairness in state elections. It remains to be seen whether this new form of redistricting will be applied to the state’s Congressional districts, but momentum is building for placing an initiative on the ballot in 2018, in time for a new round of redistricting.