With gerrymandering comes strong opinions. But what is it?

By: - September 20, 2021 12:40 am

Citizens meet Sept. 9 during the second Ohio Redistricting Commission meeting of the day. During the meeting, the GOP-proposed map was accepted by the commission as a “working document” as negotiations continue. Photo by Susan Tebben

The saga over drawing legislative districts in Ohio was an intense one, despite a shorter timeline in which to redraw district maps. But it’s not over yet.

With a potential court battle coming, along with a new deadline, this time for congressional districts, the concept of gerrymandering is on people’s minds.

Gerrymandering comes up every 10 years, after census data comes out and the districts that define state representatives and senators, along with Ohio’s congressional leaders, are redrawn during the redistricting process.

Ohio’s 9th congressional district, the so-called “snake by the lake.”
Source: Ohio Secretary of State

The concept of gerrymandering stems back to the 1800s when Elbridge Gerry, who would go on to become vice president for James Madison, approved a partisan district in the Boston area that resembled a salamander.

Ohio has seen odd shapes here, like the 9th Congressional district that has been called the “snake by the lake” in Northern Ohio, and what some refer to as the “duck district” of Central Ohio’s 4th Congressional district.

Ohio’s 4th congressional district, likened to a long-billed duck.
Source: Ohio Secretary of State

Since then, the term has historically referred to manipulating political districts to favor one political party over another.

“This type of map-making reduces voter choices and leads to fewer competitive elections and elected officials who are less accountable to their constituents,” the League of Women Voters of Ohio and Common Cause Ohio said in a report on gerrymandering.

In the maps passed on Thursday, Republicans say they would lose 6 seats in the Ohio legislature, but would still have an advantage. The map shows Republicans with 62 seats in the House, leaving Democrats with 37. In the state Senate, Republicans would hold 23 seats, Democrats would have only 10. Both of these leave the supermajority in place, majorities that reduce the power of the governor’s veto on legislation.

Under requirements made in the 2015 constitutional amendment that created the rules of redistricting in the state, the Ohio Redistricting Commission had to ensure that election results were considered as they drew the maps. Namely, section 6 of the constitutional amendment specifies that a district’s proportion of voters has to “correspond closely to the statewide preferences of the voters of Ohio.”

This section was debated during the legislative redistricting process, with Huffman questioning the definition of “results” during ORC meetings. He argued “results” could mean the overall election results (is Ohio a “red” state or a “blue state”), or the individual results of each district.

When the maps were passed without bipartisan support, the Republican majority of the commission was required by law to create a statement explaining “what the commission determined to be the statewide preferences of the voters of Ohio,” along with the calculations.

That statement was released shortly after the maps were passed, and it said the commission considered “statewide state and federal partisan general election results during the last ten years,” of which there were 16.

“When considering the results of each of those elections, the commission determined that Republican candidates won 13 out of the 16 of those elections, resulting in a statewide proportion of voters favoring statewide Republican candidates of 81% and a statewide proportion of voters favoring statewide Democratic candidates,” the statement reads.

If the number of individual votes cast in each election is counted, Republicans only account for an average of 54% of votes.

“Thus, the statewide proportion of voters favoring Republican candidates is between 54% and 81%,” according to the commission statement.

In the final General Assembly maps, the majority members of the commission decided 64% of the districts would favor Republicans and about 35% would favor Democrats.

Minority representation

While Ohio Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on whether or not the state is being gerrymandered, they both felt it was important to mention as the newest four-year redistricting plan was passed.

Senate President Matt Huffman denied that the new maps, created under his leadership, seek to further gerrymander the state, even balaming “special interest groups” of promoting a focus on minority populations called “representational fairness” as a new way of splitting the state up in a partisan way.

“So-called representational fairness is just another way to describe gerrymandering, and these groups need to remember districts are won with quality candidates, issues and campaigns, not on predetermined outcomes based on a false premise of letting special interests from Washington, D.C., define what is fair,” Huffman said in a statement after the maps were approved early Thursday morning.

Advocacy groups like the ACLU of Ohio and All on the Line say representational fairness is not only a part of the constitutional requirements because redistricting has to follow federal laws such as the Voting Rights Act, but also a major problem the process had before.

They explained this using the terms “packing” and “cracking.”

“Packing” refers to oversaturating a particular district with a minority group to reduce the number of districts with minority populations in them. “Cracking” refers to splitting populations into different districts, which leads to “diluted” voting power.

All of this will be considered as the maps go forward, and especially if they head to the courts, as is expected by leaders on both sides of the issue.

The timeline for congressional redistricting. Graphic by OCJ.

Gerrymandering and representation will come up again as redistricting continues on to the federal level.

Huffman has already said the first deadline at the end of September is likely to pass by without the legislature deciding on congressional maps, and if the legislature can’t come to an agreement, the commission may get another crack at maps, with a late-October deadline for bipartisan agreement.

If, as happened with legislative maps, no bipartisan agreement happens by Halloween, the process heads back to the legislature. The congressional district maps could then also be on a four-year cycle if both parties can’t agree, and the Republican majority passes maps along party lines.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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