Ohio Legislature: The Power of Redistricting

A single fact illustrates the significance of the once-a-decade redrawing of political lines.
by | September 8, 2010
 

A Columbus Dispatch story on the campaign for control of the Ohio House included this incredible nugget:

Democrats gained 17 seats in the past three elections and, in January 2009, took control of the House for the first time in 14 years.

It also was the first time in modern Ohio history that a party took control of the House in districts drawn by the other party.

The next time I have any doubts about the power of redistricting to reshape the political landscape, I'll remember that line. This article also reminds me of a great column that Alan Ehrenahlt, Governing's executive editor at the time, wrote about Ohio legislative politics after the 2006 elections. The key part:

It was, indeed, the Great Blue Sweep of 2006, in Ohio as in much of the country. But as the votes poured in, the Democratic Party found itself puzzling over the one big prize that got away: the legislature. Not only did Democrats fail to capture the Ohio House or Senate--which some thought might happen--they didn't come near it. When the legislature convenes again this month, the House will still be Republican by a margin of 53-46. And the Senate, which was Republican by a lopsided 22-11 before November, scarcely moved at all. It's now 21-12. The Democrats gained one Senate seat. The voter discontent that installed their candidates in nearly all the major statewide offices in Columbus failed to produce a remotely similar result on the legislative side.

Why would voters cast Democratic votes at the top of the ballot and then change their minds in the next column down? Actually, there's a simple answer. They didn't.

If you take out a calculator and add up the votes cast for the Ohio Senate in 2006, you will find that there was something indeed resembling a blue tide. Returns from the Secretary of State's Office (they are unofficial and will change, but not by much), show that Democratic Senate candidates drew more than a million votes--1,007,284. Republicans drew 731,168. That's close to a 60-40 split.

So how did the GOP end up with a 21-12 majority in the chamber? Well, only 17 of the 33 Senate seats were up this year. And Democrats already held eight of those. So the best they could do mathematically was pick up nine. And you're never going to win all of the other party's seats, no matter how strong a tide there is. So that explains part of it.

But still, one measly seat? The Democrats draw 60 percent of the statewide Senate vote--a plurality of 300,000--and all they get out of it is a one-seat gain? That makes no sense.

Or, rather, it doesn't make sense until you look at the margins of the winning candidates. All eight of the Republicans who won survived competitive campaigns by relatively narrow spreads. Six of the eight were in the 50 to 59 percent range. On the other hand, the nine Democratic winners all coasted home. Two weren't even opposed. The LOWEST Democratic winning percentage (60.8 percent) was very close to the HIGHEST Republican percentage (61.9 percent).

What's the explanation for that? I won't keep you in suspense any longer. In fact, I imagine you've figured it out by now. The Ohio Senate map is an elegant 21st-century gerrymander, drawn by Republican mapmakers to squeeze out as many Republican victories as possible by packing Democrats into a limited number of one-party enclaves with huge Democratic majorities. They did a pretty good job with the Ohio House, too, by the way: Democrats drew about 125,000 more votes than Republicans in the state's 99 House districts, and still fell four seats short of control.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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