Ohio Redistricting Overhaul Gains Support

Republicans controlled the redrawing of legislative and congressional district lines in Ohio over the last two years and, as the 2012 elections proved, that power paid off. Sometime soon, though, Ohio Republicans may help ensure that they never have that power again.

The Ohio Senate voted 32 to 1 in December to create a new commission to draw legislative and congressional districts. Under the plan, bipartisanship would be required. Maps would need five votes on the seven-member commission to pass, including at least one vote from the commission's minority party.  “It seems we have as much bipartisan momentum to head in the same direction as we ever have,” says Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican and longtime supporter of redistricting changes.

Ironically, one reason for that momentum, supporters say, is that it's the longest possible time before the changes would have any effect. Ohio won't redistrict again until after the 2020 census.

That means legislators themselves have the least possible personal stake in the outcome. None of them will be able to hold their current seats through implementation of any new system: Term limits forbid Ohio legislators from serving more than eight consecutive years in either the House or the Senate.

It also means that the effects of the latest round of redistricting are fresh in everyone's minds. The GOP maintained its comfortable majorities in the legislature, even as President Obama prevailed at the top of the ticket. Democrats won only a quarter of the state's U.S. House districts, even though Democratic candidates took 47 percent of the House vote, according to data compiled by the Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman.

Another effect was that the state has many safe seats for either Democrats or Republicans, with relatively few seats seriously contested in general elections. Of the 117 legislative elections on Ohio's ballot in November, in only 19 of them did the winning candidate take less than 55 percent of the vote. “Increasingly, we have more and more people being elected to office that come from only the political left and the political right,” Husted says, “and there is no electoral pressure for them ever to be concerned about the average voter.”

Complaints like that are common in every state where redistricting is in partisan hands. But outside Ohio there aren't many legislatures talking about a new redistricting process this year. Normally, the biggest obstacle to taking redistricting out of the hands of the legislature is that it's not in the self-interest of the party in the majority—even if the next round of redistricting is eight years away.

What's different about Ohio is that redistricting is already partially out of the legislature's hands. The legislature redraws congressional districts, but not state legislative districts. Instead, that's the job of the Ohio Apportionment Board. The five-member board includes one majority and minority party legislative representative and three statewide elected officials: the governor, secretary of state and state auditor. Republicans controlled the board after 2010, but, in a state as politically competitive as Ohio, it's anyone's guess which party will hold those offices in coming years. “I really think the window of opportunity is now,” says Senator Frank LaRose, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill last year, “because 2021 is far enough on the horizon that neither side could figure out whether the status quo or reform  is advantageous to them.”

Still, that doesn't mean a plan like the one that passed the Senate in December is a foregone conclusion. House Speaker Pro Tempore Matt Huffman says the flaw with the Senate plan and similar proposals is that they don't address what happens if Republicans and Democrats on the commission hit a stalemate. “It really comes down to the same thing,” Huffman says, “How do you force a decision to be made?”

Huffman's preference is to refer redistricting to the state's Constitutional Modernization Commission, a group including legislators and private citizens that is offering the legislature recommendations on how to change the Ohio Constitution.  He says that his boss, House Speaker William Batchelder, feels the same way.

Huffman's hope is that the constitutional commission would help build consensus, but going that route also would prevent immediate action.  It's possible the momentum Husted sees right now will ebb. National Republicans might rally against a plan that could ultimately jeopardize multiple Republican-controlled seats in the U.S. House.

If the December Senate vote ends up representing a false start for a redistricting overhaul in Ohio, it won't be the first one. Ballot initiatives to create independent redistricting commissions failed badly with voters in both 2005 and again last year. Both houses of the legislature approved different plans in the 2009-2010 term, but failed to reconcile their differences. “Ohio has been talking about redistricting reform since I was in high school,” says Catherine Turcer, a policy analyst with Common Cause Ohio, who points to discussions of the topic starting in the 1980s. “I'm not young.”

Despite that history, Turcer says she's cautiously optimistic that changes will happen this time. One reason for that optimism is that very few people — even people who participated in the latest round of redistricting — are defending the status quo. “From my perspective, what we do now isn't a very good way of doing it,” Huffman says. “I can say that because I was chairman of the redistricting committee.”