Every 10 years Ohio redraws its state and congressional district lines. And every 10 years the process turns into a party-political struggle.
This year the process should be different: less focused on protecting those already in power and more on keeping communities together.
The Ohioans made two amendments to the state constitution to ensure this. The new rules limited the number of counties and required the approval of the Democrats, the state’s minority party. You even set specific dates for each step in the process.
Then the COVID-19 hit. The pandemic delayed critical data from the US Census Bureau and threatened to push Ohio-designated card makers beyond their constitutional deadlines.
One Republican unsuccessfully proposed that the Ohio constitution be amended again. Democrats suggested asking the state’s Supreme Court for an extension.
In the background, a third option loomed, a last resort measure set out in the Ohio Constitution: the majority party of Republican lawmakers could draw and pass its own card without a single Democratic vote.
A card could be handed over quickly These districts would only last four years. They would have to come back and adopt another six-year card in 2025, and the rules for dividing communities would be stricter.
“I think a lot of people immediately think these cards are awful, but that’s not necessarily true,” said Catherine Turcer, a reform attorney and director of Common Cause Ohio.
A four year card
The drawing of the 99 districts of the Ohio State House and the 33 State Senate is carried out by a commission of seven: the governor, the secretary of state, the auditor, and a representative from each major party in the Ohio House and the Senate.
The commission has until September 1st to draw up and vote on a non-partisan set of cards. If they can’t, Republicans can submit their own cards for review. Then the choice is yours: customize these cards until the two Democrats support them, or give what they have to a party line vote by September 15th.
If Republicans choose the latter, the cards will only last four years.
And therein lies the problem. Updated population data from the Census Bureau should be delivered in April. Now August 16th is expected, but the numbers could come on September 30th.
“We may not be able to draw a map under any circumstances until September 1,” said Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima.
He wanted to change the state constitution so that the legislature could set new deadlines in October or November. Democrats rejected the idea and the plan died on Wednesday.
“One thing we can do is hand over a card asap,” said Huffman. “We know we have passed the deadline for creating a 10-year card as needed, so let’s pass our 4-year card on.”
Why? Because the Ohio Constitution has a different deadline. Legislators must live in their districts a year before election day, November 8th.
It would also be unfair to give people a week or two to exercise, Huffman said. He wants to give people as much time as possible to decide if they want to move.
“It’s a system failure,” said Huffman. But it could be the best of a number of bad options.
“Our greatest fears are late tickets and the rush to recruit new primaries,” said Liz Walters, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, at a conference in Impact Ohio in late April.
However, it is realistic about the tradeoffs that come with moving quickly.
“Do I want a 10 year card? Yes,” said Walters. “Do I think we’ll have one? I don’t.”
In the decade since Ohio drew its maps, the number of Republican legislators in both the Ohio House and the Senate has continued to grow. Even the resignations of former House spokesmen Cliff Rosenberger and Larry Householder have not hurt their numbers.
Republicans control 75% of the Senate seats, although Ohio consistently votes 55% to 45% for statewide Republican candidates.
Democrats say that’s plain and simple gerrymandering. And the state’s congressional districts are no better. Not a single one has changed hands in the past decade.
“Representatives will not be voted out,” said David Niven, a professor at the University of Cincinnati. “You get bored and withdraw.”
The restructuring changes in Ohio should change that.
The statehouse rules state that no “plan should be drawn up primarily to favor or dislike any political party”. They also set specific guidelines for the division of counties, cities, and towns.
Those rules can’t change even if Republicans draw a four-year map, Niven said. “We’re getting smarter when it comes to including criteria in the process.”
Even so, he believes there is more than one way to get a gerrymandered cat on a map of Ohio.
Mapping software can draw hundreds or even thousands of map combinations, and software has reached a point where it can learn from feedback programmers. Clever card makers can follow the rules while creating districts that favor a political party.
“If the mission is to draw them fairly, it’s actually a pretty straightforward process,” he said. “It’s harder to draw what we have now.”
Rather than simply keeping communities together, you have to search for the “right” constituencies street by street to include and exclude them.
“If you look at the zigzag lines that cut through Cincinnati, that’s gerrymandering,” he said.
These maneuvers could still find their way into the new maps. Republicans and Democrats reached an agreement back in 2011 to create the current congressional districts.
That’s why it’s so important for people to get involved, Turcer said. Voters understand their communities better than anyone else. You can look at a map and see how your child’s school spans two boroughs, or ask why a line runs in the middle of your neighborhood.
“I don’t want voters to get away with the idea that this is over because of the pandemic …” Turcer said. “All over Ohio, many eyes will be on our own communities to identify places where it doesn’t look right.”
Reporter Jessie Balmert contributed to this story.