Commentary: Red, Blue, Purple, Pink... What Color Is Ohio These Days?

Dec 12, 2018

You tell me if this makes sense.

Ohio has 16 congressional districts - for the moment, at least.

There's a good chance we'll lose one in the 2020 Census due to a declining population in relation to other states. 

In the Nov. 6 election, 52 percent of the electorate in Ohio cast its ballots for a Republican candidate for the U.S. House.

In the same election, 48 percent cast ballots for a Democratic candidate for the House.

Not exactly even-steven, but close enough for government work.

The result of this voting was that nothing changed in the make-up of the Ohio House delegation – there will still be 12 Republicans and four Democrats in the new House sworn in in January.

So Democratic voters cast 48 percent of the votes and get 25 percent of Ohio's seats.

The Republican voters had 52 percent of the ballots and get 75 percent of the seats.

"This is a reminder that Ohio has the worst congressional district maps in the country,'' said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

So, what is wrong with this picture?

Well, just a little thing called gerrymandering.

Ohio's current congressional district map.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

It is a process that takes place every 10 years after the U.S. Census is done – a process where politicians of whichever party is in power (the Republicans in Ohio, for quite some time) draw political districts lines which favor their candidates and leave the opposition with the scraps that fall off the table.

That's why we end up with congressional districts that look like renderings of snakes, crabs, octopi, and the Loch Ness monster in order to suit the ruling party's needs.

This may all end in the near future, after the 2020 census, when a new redistricting plan approved by Ohio voters in the 2018 primary takes effect. It is designed to make the process less overtly partisan – more based on population than politics.

There are some who doubt whether it will work. Others are keeping their fingers crossed.

If it does work as intended in 2022, with, say, an 8-7 split between the parties, it may put an end to the notion that Ohio is now a Republican red state.

This is a pretty easy argument to make these days. The years 2018, 2014, 2010 – all mid-term elections where the Democrats lost every single one of the state executive offices.

And, after voting for Barack Obama twice in 2008 and 2012, it suddenly reversed course and gave Donald Trump an eight-percentage point victory in 2016.

Mack Mariani, a professor in the political science department at Xavier University, said it is "pretty clear" that the electorate is polarized in Ohio right now, but doesn't see that as a permanent condition.

"Look at Hamilton County,'' Mariani said. "It's blue now. No question about it. But the outlying areas like Butler, Clermont, Warren – they are red as can be."

There is no question that things are going the Republicans' way in Ohio now, Mariani said, and a large part of that is that so many voters have jumped on board with Trump.

"Even in a year which was supposed to be trouble for Republicans in Ohio, they won the governor's office and the other statewide offices and still won 52 percent of the House vote,'' Mariani said.

Will that last?

Mariani thinks a lot of it will have to do with where Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump and his associates goes, and whether the country slips into another 2008-style recession.

"I think it is really hard to project outward at what might happen next,'' Mariani said. "Things could change very quickly. As soon as 2020."

Dale Butland, a long-time Democratic strategist in Ohio, seems convinced that the Democrats are looking at a rather long wander in the wilderness because of recent election results.

"If Ohio is not red now, it is deeply pink,'' Butland said.

He uses Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Democrat just elected to a third term, as an example of how even the strongest Democratic candidates in Ohio are slipping.

"Sherrod outspent (Republican opponent) Jim Renacci by 14-to-1; he had the polls running in his favor by double digits in the last weeks, and Renacci had no campaign but to rehash Sherrod's divorce,'' Butland said. "And he ends up winning by only six percentage points."

In 2012, Brown won 25 counties, Butland said. This time he won only 16.

"And Sherrod hasn't changed; he's still doing the same thing; he's still out there talking about looking out for the working people and preaching a populist message,'' Butland said.

Democrats did much better in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Butland said.

"And the only difference between those states and Ohio is that we are older, whiter and less educated,'' Butland said. "Just like Trump voters."

Pepper, as you might imagine, is not buying into this "red state" argument.

He's holding out hope that the new redistricting plan will even the playing field – at least in part.

It will mean that the legislature will be required to pass a redistricting plan by a simple majority without following certain fairness requirements.

Under the new plan, the legislature would have until September 30 of 2021 to pass a plan. And the plan must have 60 percent support of both the Ohio House and Senate and at least half the members of each major political party.

If that doesn't work, the task of working out a map goes to a bipartisan group of seven commissioners.

One thing is almost certain: Hamilton County will essentially be its own congressional district. So much for the GOP advantage in the 1st District, where the addition of Warren County in 2011 made it nearly impossible for a Democrat to win the seat.

"There is a much hope that we can have much more fair districts,'' Pepper said.

The plan that was put on the 2018 primary ballot was a compromise between the political parties and groups with an interest in the electoral process. It still leaves a role for partisan politicians to play in drawing lines.

"I would have gone further,'' Pepper said. "But there are states that have taken much more politics out of the process and the ballot issues failed.

"We have had two plans on the ballot in Ohio and they both failed miserably because the Republican Party opposed them,'' Pepper said. "We went with something that had a chance of passing."

Now, it will be up to the Democrats to make sure the 52-48 formula doesn't translate into an 11-4 congressional delegation.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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