Ohio is a swing state. It voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. It sends one Democrat and one Republican to the US Senate. It has a pattern of electing Democratic and Republican governors—often in closely contested races. And, yet, Ohio’s congressional delegation currently includes 12 Republicans and just four Democrats.
Ohio saw one of the most radical gerrymandering of congressional districts in the country back in 2011. Republicans gained control of Ohio’s governorship and the Legislature in the 2010 “Republican wave” election and, like their political allies in a number of other states, they determined to lock in their gains by redrawing district maps to eliminate two-party competition. In Ohio, they created a classic “rigged system” in which a handful of Democrats would win overwhelmingly Democratic districts while many more Republicans would win districts that were drawn to maintain their partisan advantage—no matter what national or state political trends were in play.
Suddenly, a competitive state became uncompetitive. And unrepresentative. As Ohio’s Fair Districts = Fair Elections Coalition (which includes the League of Women Voters of Ohio, Common Cause Ohio, and dozens of other groups) has noted: “Although the total number of votes cast for each major party is consistently close in this battleground state, the party that drew the maps won 75% of the seats (12 of 16) even though they only got roughly 50-60% of the votes.”
That’s not an uncommon circumstance in the United States. But even in a nation that has become so absurdly and extremely gerrymandered that the Supreme Court is now considering an intervention to address the issue, Ohio stood out as one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation.
In recent Ohio congressional elections, the party favored by the district lines won 100 percent of the time. As state Representative Kathleen Clyde, who on Tuesday won the Democratic nomination for Ohio secretary of state, explains it: “These rigged and partisan districts made a mockery of our elections and they turn people off from voting.”
But that’s about to end.
On Tuesday, Ohio voters approved a radical rewrite of the rules, which was promoted by the League of Women Voters and other good-government groups, and forced onto the ballot via pressure on legislators to come up with a plan to end gerrymandering.
“Ohio voters have made their voices heard and sent a clear message that they want a fair, transparent government that works for them,” says the League’s Ann Henkener.
How clear? Seventy-five percent of Ohio voters backed Issue 1, the reform measure designed to guarantee “bipartisan mapmaking, greater transparency and public participation.” The plan is not a perfect reform. It merely curbs gerrymandering, and allows partisan politicians to retain a hand in a process that should be run on a nonpartisan basis—and that should at least consider more democratic alternatives to traditional single-member districts and first-past-the-post voting.
But the Ohio plan, which will be implemented following the 2020 Census, has tremendous potential to create more competitive districts—and a significantly more balanced and representative congressional delegation.
Under Issue 1, a party with a temporary majority in the Legislature can no longer simply roll over the majority party and lock in lines for congressional districts for a decade.
Instead, map drawers will be forced to follow a process with three stages that are designed at every turn to err on the side of fair maps:
Stage One: Passage of a map requires a three-fifths vote of both the House and Senate and must include at least 50 percent support of minority party members. If that doesn’t work…
Stage Two: Ohio’s existing seven-person bipartisan redistricting commission will be empowered to draw districts and must approve a map with at least two minority party votes. If that doesn’t work…
Stage Three: The legislature gets another chance to pass either (1) a 10-year map with one-third of the minority party’s support or (2) a four-year map with a simple majority. If the process gets to the last stage not requiring minority party support, stricter rules protecting against unfair manipulation would apply.
Reformers nationally are looking at many models that might be utilized if the US Supreme Court rejects partisan gerrymandering in a ruling expected this summer. Even if the Court does not act as it should, Ohioans have provided a model that grassroots activists and honest elected officials can advocate for at the state level.
The Ohio plan will not be the only proposal in play as reformers ponder strategies. But it will be one of them. And there’s a reason for that, says Ann Henkener of the League of Women Voters of Ohio: “The approval of Issue 1 means an end to extreme partisan gerrymandering.”