Commentary

Is meeting all criteria while drawing fair and constitutional maps impossible? Hardly

January 20, 2022 3:20 am

The Republican majority members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission. Top row from left, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Bottom row from left Ohio Auditor Keith Faber, House Speaker Bob Cupp, and Senate President Matt Huffman. Official photos.

In order for redistricting maps to pass Ohio Constitution muster, multiple criteria are in play. In addition to federal requirements under the Voting Rights Act, the state constitution as amended by voters in 2015 and 2018 requires state legislative and U.S. congressional district maps be compact, contiguous, competitive, preserve a certain number of whole counties, and proportional to the statewide preferences of voters when it comes to partisan lean.

Specifically, in the congressional plan, the map cannot unduly favor or disfavor a political party or its incumbents, and cannot unduly split governmental units such as townships.

Some Ohio politicians involved in the redistricting process would have us believe that criteria around compactness and not splitting governmental units and counties make it impossible to draw maps that achieve competitiveness and do not unduly favor one political party. They would have us believe it’s impossible to draw constitutional maps closely resembling the 54/46 Republican-to-Democratic split of voter preferences as averaged over the last 10 years in statewide elections.

This is wrong. It’s not impossible. It’s purposefully disingenuous and a flashing red alert of politicians acting in bad faith when they claim that it is.

In fact, according to University of Cincinnati associate professor David Niven, it actually takes a good amount of effort to meet the various other criteria and still draw maps that unduly favor one political party.

It's actually harder to draw a compliant unfair map than it is to draw a compliant fair map.

– David Niven, associate professor of politcs at the University of Cincinnati

Niven would know. As an exercise for his students, he had two groups of students draw maps with two different goals: One shooting for fair maps, and one shooting to unduly favor one political party.

“It actually works out that drawing fair maps is a pretty intuitive and simple process. The crazy squiggly lines (in unfair maps) are a product of trying to surgically split people for the purposes of maximizing advantage,” he said. “It’s actually harder to draw a compliant unfair map than it is to draw a compliant fair map.”

Niven said that using redistricting software to draw a fair map, starting in one corner geographically and working through the state, folks naturally end up with pretty fair maps that meet other criteria.

“Getting an unfair map is an active effort,” he said. “You have to undo what would otherwise be logical and simple.”

Pointing to Hamilton County and Summit County in the unconstitutional maps, Niven noted that these blue areas were sliced to squeeze in Republican seats.

On if there is a conflict between certain map criteria and maps that don’t unduly favor one party, Niven said he doesn’t see a separation between the two.

“They compliment each other and create a bottom line,” he said. “It’s right there in the constitution.”

As the Ohio Redistricting Commission meets today, Thursday, facing an Ohio Supreme Court deadline of Saturday for new Ohio House and Senate maps, Niven said he is hoping for a couple things.

“What I would hope to see are things that clearly didn’t happen the first time. One would be the commissioners actually work together. It’s clear from what (Ohio Secretary of State Frank) LaRose said, and what (Ohio Gov. Mike) DeWine said, the Republicans even locked each other out of the process, which is really an extraordinary thing about how this was done.”

The second thing he’s hoping to see, Niven said, is commissioners starting with the goal of constitutional and fair maps and drawing districts to that goal, instead of drawing unconstitutional maps and retroactively trying to justify them.

“Part of what this really hinges on — and it’s true at the national level, and it’s true in Ohio — all the rules in the world, all the principles in the world, all the constitutions in the world, ultimately depend on people,” he said. “We saw that in the first iteration. We had absolutely crystal clear rules passed by an overwhelming majority of Ohioans, and five members of the commission acted like nothing had changed.”

Niven was struck by Gov. DeWine’s remarks after the first meeting of the Ohio Redistricting Commission Tuesday where he said ORC members would look to follow the constitution and work together.

“It’s just really striking to come out and say, ‘This time we’re going to follow the constitution and work together,’ when you’re on a redistricting commission created by the constitution that requires working together,” he said.

With Ohio Republicans holding all the cards still after failing to push through unconstitutional maps, the question now becomes whether they will have the political courage to make their own party members run in competitive elections — and endure temper-tantrum backlash from those members —in order to uphold the Ohio Constitution and enact the will of Ohio voters with fair districts. Or will they claim that’s somehow just impossible?

“Even though there are rules and processes, ultimately this is a human question,” as Niven put it. “It comes down to the humans involved.”

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David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief David DeWitt has more than 15 years experience covering Ohio government, politics and policy, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and Plunderbund.com. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt.

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