Ohio leaders say they’d like more competitive lege, congressional districts, cite challenges

By: - February 3, 2021 12:55 am

Pictured is Ohio’s congressional delegation as it has looked after the 2012, ’14, ’16, ’18 and ’20 elections. The map will soon be redrawn.

Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted on Tuesday said they hope a new system of drawing congressional and state legislative districts will result in more competitive elections. But, they cautioned, the task will be far from simple.

Ohio has among the worst partisan gerrymandering, according to multiple analyses

Districts are typically redrawn once every 10 years to reflect population changes when new census data become available. Until now, the party in control of the Statehouse has commanded the process and, using modern technology, that party has been able to greatly advantage itself.

A 2019 analysis by the Associated Press determined that in the U.S. House, Ohio Republicans got 52% of the vote but held 75% of the seats. They also held supermajorities in the state House and Senate that exceeded the portion of votes they received at the polls, the analysis found.

A separate 2013 analysis found that Ohio Democrats were the second-most underrepresented in the U.S. House and that Republicans were overrepresented by 18 seats nationwide. The imbalance was a consequence of the fact that the GOP wiped out Democrats in statehouse races in 2010 and had control of the last redistricting process in most states.

The problems created by such a partisan skew extend beyond unbalanced party representation. It also fuels polarization and extremism.

“We’ve all read the same studies about how many of the 435 congressional districts in the country aren’t really competitive and for many of them, the greatest… perceived threat to the incumbent is a primary,” DeWine said.

Voter turnout in party primaries tends to be much lower than in general elections and is dominated by the most ardent partisans — a dynamic that can result in winning candidates with fringe views that would make them sure losers in a competitive general election.

Think Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has a record of expressing racist views, denying the reality of school shootings and whose speculations that California wildfires might have nefarious origins resulted in the mocking hashtag #JewishSpaceLasers.

He’s a member of her party, but comments by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Monday might indicate that even when they add to GOP numbers, highly gerrymandered districts are damaging to his party. He didn’t mention Greene by name, but his reference was clear when he said many of the “loony lies” expressed by her were “a cancer for the Republican Party.”

Gov. Mike DeWine and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan. Photos courtesy the governor’s office and Jordan’s Congressional office.

Closer to home, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, endorsed Greene in her bid last year to win a crowded Republican Primary so she could run unopposed in the General Election. 

Jordan himself has espoused conspiracy theories — including speaking at one of President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rallies on Nov. 5

Lies by fringe politicians about a stolen election pose an even more direct threat to American democracy. They fueled a Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that killed five and delayed certification of the presidential election.

One of Trump’s closest allies, Jordan was reelected to his District 4 seat with nearly 70% of the vote.

There was widespread speculation that Jordan might seek the GOP nomination to fill the U.S. Senate seat held by Rob Portman, a Republican who is stepping down in 2022. Jordan later announced that he would not seek the seat.

His office didn’t respond Tuesday when asked if the congressman had calculated that he couldn’t win outside of his gerrymandered district.

DeWine wasn’t asked about Jordan, but of the scarcity of competitive congressional races he said, “Truly, it is a national problem.” 

To address the issue, Ohio voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved a system that would require bipartisan support for 10-year congressional maps. If that fails, four-year districts could be drawn with a party-line vote.

Husted, the lieutenant governor, said the new system has multiple goals, some of which may be mutually complicating.

In Ohio and elsewhere, the crazy shape of districts such as Jordan’s have been widely criticized. His zigs and zags and goes from just west of Columbus almost to the Indiana line, north almost to Toledo and east almost to Cleveland. 

Techniques known as “cracking and packing” have been used to draw districts that maximize partisan numbers. But they often result in maps that don’t make much sense when it comes to representing constituent interests.

The new system is “designed to hit the goals of making the districts more compact, less gerrymandered, keeping communities of interest together,” Husted said. “We think those are positive enhancements to the system and it will ultimately lead to representation that is more consistent among those communities.”

But doing that while also drawing competitive districts has become more difficult as politics have become more polarized — especially along geographic lines, DeWine said.

“The counties that were Republican 10 years ago may be much more Republican today,” he said. “In other words, the margins have gone way up and we’ve seen the same thing with Democrat counties.”



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.