Ohio Takes Half-Step On Redistricting Reform

[ Posted Wednesday, May 9th, 2018 – 17:24 UTC ]

Last night, Ohio took a half-step towards the goal of ending political gerrymandering by removing politicians from the process of redistricting House seats after every decennial U.S. Census. The ballot initiative that passed in last night's primary election is somewhat convoluted, but will at least provide some sort of brake on rampant gerrymandering for purely political purposes. It may only be a half-step (or, if you like baked metaphors instead, half a loaf), but it certainly is a half-step in the right direction.

In 2021 (when the next redistricting will take place), Ohio will attempt to draw a new House map in several stages. The process starts in the state legislature, which attempts to draw a map. They then vote on this map. The map has to get 60 percent support, as well as at least 50 percent of the minority party's votes. That's a pretty high bar, and one would assume a nakedly-gerrymandered map would fail to clear it.

If the first attempt fails, then the second stage kicks in. A seven-member bipartisan commission draws a new map, which has to gain the support of at least two members from the minority party.

If the commission fails to draw an acceptable map, then the process goes back to the legislature. They draw another map, which this time has to get a 60-percent supermajority as before, but this time it would only require one-third of the minority party's votes to pass. This is a somewhat-lower bar, but it's still pretty high.

If this doesn't work, then the legislature will be able to draw up yet another map that would only require a simple majority to pass -- but this map would only be in effect for four years, meaning the process would begin again after two intervening congressional elections. If this final stage is the only way a map can pass, the ballot measure specifies that it can't "unduly favor or disfavor one particular party or its incumbents." Legislators would also have to provide written justification for the map, meaning it'd be easier to sue to overturn it.

As you can see, this is far from a perfect (or even "simple") process. It only gives the independent commission one crack at drawing a new map, while largely keeping the legislature in charge of the process. There's a reason why the plan is so convoluted and so tilted towards the legislature and away from the commission -- the ballot initiative was written by the state legislature itself. They did this to head off a much simpler plan (which would have moved the whole process to an independent commission), which had been gaining signatures to qualify for the ballot. The legislature successfully watered down what a citizens' group had proposed, in other words. They limited the redistricting reform to a half-step rather than the full step the other measure would have instituted. So it's incremental progress, at best.

But it is incremental progress, and it's in the right direction. A lot could still go wrong with the process, but it does make it harder for one party to get away with nakedly gerrymandering to shut out the minority party. An attempt could still be made to bulldoze through a gerrymandered map at the end of the process, but it'd be a lot easier to challenge such a map in court. The likelihood of court challenges to gerrymandering succeeding could even have a whole new set of rules within a month or so, as the Supreme Court is set to rule on two landmark political gerrymandering cases (one from Wisconsin which benefits Republicans, and one from Maryland which benefits Democrats). But even barring such a shift, by creating an extended process for redistricting, at the very least the voters in Ohio will be aware of each stage as it happens, so it should be pretty easy to figure out if one party is trying to unfairly rig the process.

The other thing which could go wrong with the Ohio plan is what might be called "mutually-assured gerrymandering." This is where the two parties essentially sit down and claim a certain number of districts each. Then they each gerrymander different sections of the state map to assure they'll win in that number of districts. This gives virtually everybody "safe" seats, and means elections are a lot less costly to fight for both parties. This has indeed happened in states with politically-gerrymandered maps, as the majority party agrees to toss the minority party a certain number of bones. Both sides shake hands, and then vote the new map into being. This would likely provide the minimum votes necessary under the Ohio plan for the new map to pass (either one-half or one-third of the minority party could be convinced "it's the best we can do, and at least our own districts will be safe," in other words).

Overall, though, even a half-step in the right direction is good news, because it adds to the growing movement to end political gerrymandering. Five other states (Maine, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia) have some combination of an independent or bipartisan commission and the state legislature sharing the power to redistrict. Additionally, 11 states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawai'i, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington) have taken the legislature out of the picture entirely and given the power to draw new House maps to an independent commission. This is the final goal for redistricting reform, and has already begun to solve the gerrymandering problem nationwide.

With the addition of Ohio, this means that 17 states out of a possible 43 have now at least partially taken the power of redistricting away from state-level politicians (the other seven states and the District of Columbia currently all have populations so small they only rate a single at-large House seat, so they don't even get the chance to draw district lines). This is a very wonky and obscure subject, or at least it has been in the past. But both Eric Holder and Barack Obama pledged after leaving office to devote time and energy towards redistricting reform, and the issue does appear to be gaining steam with the electorate. Ohio won't be the only state voting on redistricting reform this year, as initiatives will be on the ballot in at least three or four other states. Barring a surprise victory at the Supreme Court, this will be the prime way redistricting reform moves forward in more and more states. Ohio's vote last night builds on this momentum. The more states that enact redistricting reform -- especially before the 2021 reapportionment -- the less gerrymandering there will be overall, and the more representative the House of Representatives will actually be to their constituencies. So Ohio might have only taken a half-step, but it is indeed a half-step in the right direction.

The real end of this road is a day when the term "gerrymandering" itself becomes an obscure part of American history. Schoolchildren will learn about it, regurgitate the dusty historical fact on a quiz (or fail to), and then promptly forget about it along with all the other historical relics they're forced to learn. Redistricting reform could bring about such a future -- one where the same number of people even recognize "gerrymander" as a word as currently know the first name of the Massachusetts governor who inspired it in the first place.


[Program Note: I wrote this article largely as a big mea culpa for not doing my homework when writing yesterday's column. I had not researched state ballot initiatives which were appearing on the primary ballots, so I was taken by surprise by my more-astute commenters who pointed the Ohio victory out to me. So, again, mea culpa and I'll try to do a better job next time.]

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


13 Comments on “Ohio Takes Half-Step On Redistricting Reform”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:

    There was a fair amount of analysis offered over the last several months, here in Ohio, about Issue One. In the end the pro-people concluded this would pass easily and immediately versus a much more challenging, protracted effort to get to the independent commission. Which always remains "the next step" if this turns out to be a bust.

    But we'll hope it helps make this state a lot more "representative" than it is now.

  2. [2] 
    goode trickle wrote:


    This might be an intersting story to follow in regards to the "jungle system".

  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:


    If you coined the term "mutually assured gerrymandering" (MAG), congrats, it's a good one!

    While gerrymandering can be used to produce ultra safe districts for senior congress people, the real power comes from managing risk. The majority party dilutes the power of the minority by cramming as many of them as possible into one or two ultra safe districts for the minority-but creating many more reliably safe districts for the majority party. It's statistical gamble, but the odds strongly favor the majority party.

    It's nice that small states are signing up for reform, but the real action is in the bigger states with more potential for creative vote dilution.

    While the Ohio legislation is a bit too crafty for my taste, it does have the advantage of creating a number of potential public hearings which will presumably draw press coverage, with potential for court dates that draw more press coverage. Sunshine is good disinfectant etc. Lawsuits are also good disinfectant.

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    elbridge gerry 2020

  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i wonder if the ohio legislature intended the measure to be a poison pill, designed for them to be able to say the voters didn't want redistricting reform, and were subsequently surprised when such a convoluted thing actually passed.

  6. [6] 
    John M wrote:

    Here in Florida in 2010 through a citizen ballot initiative, two state constitutional amendments were adopted regarding the redistricting process. While still leaving the process entirely in the hands of the state legislature, the amendments require that state legislative and congressional boundaries be drawn in such ways that they establish "fairness," are "as equal in population as feasible" and use "city, county and geographical boundaries." After the Republican dominated legislature drew new districts that ignored virtually all of those requirements, they were promptly sued and after four trials, three special sessions and eight separate rulings from the Florida Supreme Court, eventually lost in favor of maps submitted by a coalition led by the League of Women Voters and other groups.

    Republicans still dominate in the state House though. University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith said Republicans are better at fielding candidates and running campaigns, particularly in about 30 truly competitive districts. "Republicans have done a good job of targeting those areas and getting good candidates and putting a lot of money into marginal districts, which they tend to win," he said. Likewise, he said state Senate maps are drawn fairly, but Democrats under perform in districts they should win. Part of the problem with Democrats is institutional. The party has no discipline and doesn't recruit candidates as aggressively as it should.

  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    i spent a decade in south dade, and the problems with florida democrats go well beyond mere lack of organization. it's a problematic state institution on many different levels, not least of which is that it's infused with quite a few dixiecrats (who, needless to say, do not see eye to eye with the current democratic platform).


  8. [8] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Paula [1] -

    What was unclear to me in the stories I read is: "what happened to the initial push for the commission-only initiative?"

    How was it blocked by the other one? Is there still a chance it'll be on November's ballot anyway, or is it now dead?

    If you know the answers to these, I would love to hear.

    Don Harris [2] -

    While you didn't say it outright, it appears that you think that achieving a balance between the Democrats and Republicans is solving the problem of gerrymandering.

    Nope. I see ending gerrymandering as a good thing no matter what. In fact, I would turn over all redistricting to a computer program which had as its sole objective keeping districts both geographically consistent and not breaking up communities as much as possible.

    Such a program wouldn't be all that hard to write, either.

    good trickle [4] -

    Thanks for the link, I will check it out. Top two jungle primaries suck rocks....

    TheStig [5] -

    I certainly didn't look it up or anything, but perhaps someone has used the term "mutually-assured gerrymandering" before, I dunno.

    But thanks for the kind words, I did kind of think it rolled off the tongue well when I wrote it!


    I agree about the sunshine and lawsuits comment, as well. Even if the politicians essentially ignore the new system and ram through what they want, at least the public will be more aware of what they're doing this time around.

    I just read an interesting article about how GOP gerrymandering might come back to bite them -- one goal of gerrymandering is to create districts that are comfortably safe for your side, but not overwhelmingly so -- say, a 55-45 district. But if a Dem wave appears that shifts the vote by 10 or more, then what it means is that there are a whole lot more districts that could be open to flipping. I can dig up the link, if you're interested.

    nypoet22 [7] -

    Now that's an interesting take on it...

    OK, gotta post today's (rather long) article, so I'll just sign off here.


  9. [9] 
    Paula wrote:

    [10] Chris: The League of Women Voters/Common Cause Non-partisan commission effort requires the following:

    To place the Bipartisan Congressional Redistricting Reform Amendment on the ballot, the coalition of redistricting reformers will need to collect at least ten percent (10%) of the total vote cast for the office of governor at the last gubernatorial election (305,591 valid signatures).

    Ohio also has a distribution requirement for the signatures. Petitioners must submit signatures equal to five percent of the county’s total number of gubernatorial votes cast in the last election from 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties. For example, if in 2014, 6,100 votes were cast for gubernatorial candidates, the campaign would be required to collect 305 signatures.

    By February some 200,000 signatures had been collected. This apparently galvanized Republicans in the Statehouse to respond as they realized LWV was 2/3 there and would probably succeed at having enough signatures for November 2018.

    LWV and others responded to outreach and decided to support the compromise effort which - as a ballot proposal? I'm not sure why - didn't need to comply with signature requirements, etc. They gave provisional support saying they felt the Ballot Initiative was pretty good and was more likely to get Republican votes than their amendment. Or so they thought anyway - this passed with a big margin so who knows? But they figured we should put it to the vote and see what happens. They said they'd continue collecting signatures and if the May Initiative failed they'd proceed with their Amendment in November. But it passed.

    Their Press Release from Tuesday night said, in part:

    LWV Ohio Statement on Issue 1 Passage
    Date of Release or Mention:
    Tuesday, May 8, 2018

    Columbus, OH - Tonight the League of Women Voters of Ohio celebrates passage of state Issue 1, a constitutional amendment to reform the way congressional districts are drawn.

    "After decades of advocacy from the League of Women Voters on redistricting, and over a year of public education and signature collection, we are thrilled that Ohio voters have put new rules to end partisan gerrymandering into our constitution," said Mary Kirtz Van Nortwick, LWV Ohio Co-President. "This victory is a testament to the hard work of so many League members and redistricting reformers throughout both this campaign and past efforts."

    "We thank the thousands of people across the state who collected signatures, handed out flyers, and spread the word in so many ways," added LWV Ohio Co-President Alison Ricker. "The legislature came to the table and reached a compromise on this proposal because of public pressure, so this win truly belongs to the committed reformers and their hard work. Issue 1 is the reform we have been looking for, and we will now lay down our clipboards and turn to implementing these new rules and making sure they work for Ohioans."

    I don't know if they could continue - going for the perfect over the good - but evidently they're not going to.

  10. [10] 
    TheStig wrote:

    The newly enacted Ohio redistricting reforms are at root a classic example of checks and balances between politicians elected at large versus politicians elected at district levels (and therefore subject to gerrymandering). This balance has not existed in the past. Here is the new game as I see it, with explicit references to the checks and balances.

    Step 1: Legislature determines 10 yr map, but requires 50-50 consensus among legislators from the 2 parties. All office holders voting on the map reflect past redistricting decisions, but a strong consensus is required to adopt a new
    map, so even a bit of wavering within the majority party can kill the deal.

    If Step 1 fails go to step 2

    Step 2: Seven member redistricting commission determines 10 yr map. Four of the seven members are state officials elected at large (NOT PRODUCTS OF PAST REDISTRICTING, AND THEREFORE SUBJECT TO AT LARGE VOTER WRATH). One additional member is effectively going to be from the majority party, another from the minority (PRODUCTS OF PAST REDISTRICTING, but EQUALLY BALANCED AGAINST EACH OTHER). Two members from the minority must agree to the new map. Ramrodding a decision has real consequences for those high in the food chain politicians who are subject to at large review and reprisal in the next election cycle.

    If Step 2 fails go to step 3

    STEP 3: Basically similar to Step 1. Legislature determines 10 year map, but 29% of the minority legislators are required to enact the new map. Note that these 29% may be elected by a substantially larger fraction of the total electorate. These voters can put considerable pressure on those commission members elected at large (see step 2)

    If Step 3 fails go to step 4

    STEP 4

    Legislature determines a 4 year map, by simple majority of legislators who reflect past redistricting decisions. However, there are new legal safeguards in place that constrain step 4 decisions(but not steps 1-3). Egregious behavior is likely to result in a protracted sequence of court battles that will be open to public scrutiny, and once again, putting extreme stress on government officials who are
    elected at large.

    It's Rube Goldberg Device to be sure, but seemingly carefully crafted to encourage fairer distribution of power in the State of Ohio. Play nice, or suffer the consequences. I am cautiously optimistic.

  11. [11] 
    Paula wrote:

    [14] TS: "I am cautiously optimistic."

    Same here.

  12. [12] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Paula-14 one reason for my caution is that remedies offered by the new procedures are going to be slow. Lot's of time for new political mischief to be invented.

    DH-15 Correct, at least 50% of the majority and 50 % of the minority must vote in favor of the map. Balletopia ha a good summay of Ohio Issue 1 2018.

  13. [13] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    i realize over the years i've become derisive and condescending toward your efforts, and for this i apologize. i share your passion for limiting the influence of economic power on politics, and i really do admire your stubborn streak when it comes to advocating for your beliefs.

    the trouble is, your current strategy isn't working. worse, it's turning people off who would otherwise support you. i have many ideas that i think might help, but other than a few grammar and website nitpicks, most of my suggestions would require you being open to some major changes in tactics. so, when i tell you certain things are problematic, please understand that i don't mean your project is necessarily doomed, just that it currently isn't constituted in a way that will be successful.

    to get 20% of eligible voters to participate, you'd have to somehow convince 47 million people to join you. it's not necessarily a personal failing on your part that you're significantly below that watermark, but getting from point A to point B would require logistics and resources on a herculean scale. nothing anyone here could do or say, CW included, would make a significant change, and would be tilting at a very large windmill.

    the biggest specific problem with one demand, perhaps ironically, is no demand. in the economic sense, demand for a good or service requires not only that people want something or think it would be good, but also that they can afford to pay for it and are willing to sacrifice both resources and opportunity-cost to get it. the biggest challenge you face is the same challenge NHrebellion faces, the fact that campaign finance issues are low on most voters' lists of priorities. NHR are aware of it and have taken steps to address it by campaigning for public awareness. people need to move beyond simply agreeing with a point of view and begin actually caring about it. that's a slow process, but it drives public opinion in the right direction. once enough people care, perhaps your ideas would be better than NHR's, perhaps not. regardless, that's not where society is at the moment. i realize this is tough to swallow, but there's simply no shortcut to making millions of people care.

    yes, if 47 million people were suddenly to support you, that would be great and i'd be the first one cheering. however, until the issue of campaign finance jumps up the list of voter priorities, asking any blogger or journalist to debate a specific tactic to address it is putting a very large cart before a very small horse.

    i hope i've managed to communicate here in a way that is respectful and sinks in, and i wish you every bit of luck in your campaign.


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