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In Swing-State Ohio, Voters Limit Political Parties' Power in Redistricting

With the support of both Democrats and Republicans, voters ended some of the tactics that political parties use to increase their advantage in redistricting. It could be a big deal.

Armond Budish asks a question at a public meeting of the Ohio Apportionment Board, which is in charge of re-drawing the state’s legislative lines every decade.
(AP/Tony Dejak)
This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more results here.

State legislative elections in the swing state of Ohio could be a lot more competitive in a few years, after Ohio voters approved a ballot measure Tuesday that curbs the most blatant partisan abuses out of the once-a-decade process of drawing legislative districts.

The passage of Issue 1, with 71 percent voting in favor, is a remarkable political feat because both the state Republican and Democratic parties supported it. The new amendment to the state constitution essentially lowers the stakes in the redistricting process. By making it harder to draw maps that give either party a lopsided advantage, both the risks and rewards of controlling the process will be lower.

Ohio voters only changed the process for drawing new state House and Senate seats, but proponents of the measure said they want to apply a similar process to drawing congressional maps as well. 

"Today's win was an important first step, but it only got us halfway there," said Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, in a statement. "We need to take these new anti-gerrymandering rules that Issue 1 applied to the General Assembly and extend them to congressional districts, which are even more gerrymandered."

In Ohio, like in most states, the political party that controls the process can help its candidates in elections and shape the legislative agenda for the next decade.

Ohio's Issue 1 requires officials from both parties to participate in the process. The five-member group in charge of drawing new districts will expand to seven members by including two new people appointed by legislators. The change guarantees that each party will have at least two members on the commission.

If at least two people from the minority party don't support the map approved by the group, the map will expire after four years rather than 10, as it had until now. The amendment specifies that the new maps should not be drawn to give one party the advantage. It also requires the ratio of Democratic-leaning districts to Republican-leaning districts to "correspond closely to the statewide preferences of the voters of Ohio."

That could be a big deal in a swing state like Ohio.

The year before the last round of redistricting in 2011, for example, Republican John Kasich edged out Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland for governor, 49 percent to 47 percent. But after Republicans drew this decade's legislative maps, Republicans retook the Ohio House from Democrats and now hold 65 out of 99 seats there. In 2014, 57 percent of Ohio voters supported Republicans in House races.

While 2014 was a strong Republican year nationally, the Ohio map played a critical role for the GOP's outsized majorities, according to an analysis by the League of Women Voters of Ohio. The partisan make-up of the districts correctly predicted the outcome of 96 of the 99 Ohio House races in 2014, the group concluded.

So why would Ohio Republicans want to give up such an advantage? Because they get hurt by the same process when Democrats are in control.

Ohio politicians have long talked about changing the redistricting process, but this is the first major change to it in more than 40 years, according to Brittany Warner, communications director for the Ohio Republican Party. The 66 members of the state's Republican central committee "found the plan to be transparent, accountable and fair, so they endorsed the issue," she said.

Democrats backed it, too -- although the chair of the state party, David Pepper, said they preferred an independent redistricting commission like the ones in Arizona and California. But voters soundly defeated a proposal to do that in 2012.

"If you're going to have it be the politicians doing redistricting, which is less than ideal, I think it provides a structure that pretty creatively incentivizes doing it the right way," Pepper said.


David Pepper, the chair of Ohio's Democratic Party (AP/Al Behrman)

The Democratic leader said he hoped a more even partisan mix at the statehouse could hinder controversial GOP-backed legislation that Pepper said would have hurt organized labor, minority voters and women.

"The direct result of gerrymandering is non-stop, very far right, extreme legislating," he said. "Hopefully the outcome of fair districts is a much more measured approach by our state legislature."

Including the political parties, more than 100 groups -- including labor unions, business groups, good government advocates, farmers and editorial writers -- all backed the effort. No organized opposition emerged, which supporters said was a key difference from previous attempts to overhaul the state's redistricting process. 

Davis, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said before the vote that the redistricting changes are especially important in light of a 2012 state Supreme Court decision that upheld the current legislative districts. The majority in the decision concluded that some of the redistricting requirements in the state constitution were "irreconcilable." The judges noted the difficulty in trying to keep municipalities intact in legislative districts, while also trying to preserve existing districts as much as possible -- both requirements in the Ohio Constitution. When that conflict arises, the court ruled, "the apportionment board has the duty to choose the proper course, and this court will not order it to correct one constitutional violation by committing another."

The decision rendered the existing rules in Ohio's constitution "unenforceable," Davis said. "Right now, whichever political party is in control can gerrymander the maps to their heart's content," she said last month. "Under the new rules in Issue 1, none of that could happen. It's a bipartisan commission but Issue 1 creates some very strict rules that are vast improvements over what we have right now."

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more results here.

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