Lawmakers are off and running on the contentious issue of changing the way the map of Ohio’s Congressional districts is drawn. Reforming that process is meant to stop the practice of gerrymandering, when the lines benefit one party over another. But the outline of a new proposal has caused a rift between several groups.
Republicans and Democrats in the Ohio Legislature have both made it clear that they want to revamp congressional redistricting. Critics say the current system doesn’t have any guardrails to stop gerrymandering.
Republican Senator Matt Huffman of Lima laid out the plan he wants to put on the May ballot to change the system. He says the proposal will make districts compact and contiguous and won’t allow a district to split one county only to connect in another county. It would cut only the 10 most populous counties into more than four districts. And the plan tries to include one whole county in each district. But Huffman cautions lawmakers during his presentation to a Senate committee that too many rules can hinder the process.
“The more you limit what the line drawers can do the more likelihood that you are going to have a map that doesn’t comply with the Ohio Constitution,” said Huffman.
He was part of a bipartisan task force charged with coming up with a plan. And the Democrats on that group are not happy with where the plan is right now.
Democratic Senator Vern Sykes of Akron – a city that’s part of four Congressional districts – says the plan doesn’t do enough to stop partisan gerrymandering and create, what he refers to, as representational fairness.
“Keeping counties whole eliminating and minimizing the splits, putting the pieces of the puzzle together starting from the largest to the smallest counties, municipalities, townships…those are the key ingredients to making sure you put limits on gerrymandering,” Sykes said.
“It does not meet our criteria.”
That’s Ann Henkener with the Ohio League of Women Voters. That group is working on a constitutional amendment for the November ballot that would also change the redistricting process – and would remove the map-drawing power from state lawmakers and put it with a bipartisan commission. She says their plan takes party politics out of it.
“The biggest problems with partisan gerrymandering has to do with the word partisan and he does not address that particular problem at all,” Henkener said.
But Huffman derides the argument for representational fairness. He says that term means actively looking at districts to decide which should go to Democrats and which should go to Republicans.
“Anything you want something to happen you put an acceptable title on it like ‘representational fairness’ which…not sure really what that means… only that it’s partisan gerrymandering but it’s done the way that the folks who are championing it want it to be,” said Huffman.
Instead, Huffman says his plan requires buy-in from the minority party - when a map is drawn it must receive at least 1/3 of the minority vote.
Sykes argues that 1/3 of the Democratic vote essentially equals the amount represented by black state lawmakers. He says requiring 1/3 divides the party among racial lines.
“It’s distasteful. It’s been used in the past. To pack districts so minority candidates would be probable to win but that’s not in the best interest necessarily of the total population,” Sykes said.
Richard Gunther, an advocate and political science professor with Ohio State University, specializes in analyzing district maps. He says plainly that Huffman’s plan does nothing to prevent the current Congressional map, which Republicans heavily control, from happening again after the next census, when Ohio is likely to lose one of its 16 Congressional seats.
“It would easily be possible to construct a 12-3 Republican map using these rules,” Gunther said.
Sykes says he’d rather see a plan come out of the legislature rather than through the citizen’s ballot initiative. He says that way there’s more support from both parties.
But lawmakers would have to act fast. They have until February 7 to pass an issue to get it onto the May ballot.