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The far-reaching effects of gerrymandering, from reducing competition to limiting voter impact

Renee Fox/Lauren Green

Every election, dozens of races across the state at nearly every level of government lack competition.

Whether there is a one-party dominated Congressional district, an entrenched incumbent in a state general assembly seat scaring off challengers or little interest in taking on the established members in a city council race, many voters heading to the polls will find at least one race where their vote is symbolic only.

While the state doesn’t keep records about just how many local races within the state go uncontested each election, it happens often — more often in areas with lower population density and in areas that are effectively gerrymandered into one-party districts, to carve out a stronghold for a party.

Mia Lewis, associate director of the nonpartisan, pro-democracy group Common Cause Ohio said the consequences can be great.

“You end up with dysfunctional government, which is what we have,” she said.

In 2021, all five Shelby City Council members in Richland County ran unopposed after a single challenger dropped out. In Franklin County that year, three Westerville school board candidates ran without challenge. In Trumbull County this year, a rare, incumbent-free county judge election is only seeing a primary competition.

Uncontested races send the wrong message to voters

“We know that about, on average, about 10 percent of House elections go uncontested by the other major party. That's about 50, on average. And, it's a little worrisome,” said Kent State University professor Michael Ensley.

But, there could be other reasons why some incumbents don’t have challengers.

“On its face, it's not necessarily a problem, because it could be indicating that the incumbents in those places who are going unchallenged, are just doing a really good job,” Ensley said.

Over time, non-competitive elections can send a message to voters that their vote isn’t important, which stifles interest and makes it harder to recruit new candidates

“If you're continuously living in a place where there are uncompetitive uncontested elections, over the long term that can certainly have some important consequences for voters’ engagement, voters’ knowledge and, ultimately, sort of the accountability of politicians,” Ensley said.

Paul Sracic, professor of politics and international relations at Youngstown State University, said it disincentivizes participation.

“Why show up? You don't have anyone to vote for. It’s a big problem for democracy,” he said.

Lewis said it leads to a populace with less knowledge about their elected officials and less exposure to other ideas.

“If you're in an area where at least there's some contest, and there's different people running, you're going to hear both sides of a debate, you're going to at least be exposed on some level, whether it's in the newspaper, or you hear a radio interview, or you see a debate, you're going to be exposed to some level of discussion of two different ways of looking at something,” Lewis said. “But if that never occurs, then you know, and you're never exposed to that other idea, then you have absolutely no reason to be able to see it a different way.”

Gerrymandering drives competition to the primary race.

“But when you draw districts in order to have a foregone conclusion of an outcome, when you draw them to be safe seats for your party, then what you're doing is saying, exactly, as you said, the primary is the only contest that really matters,” Lewis said.

And, moderates are more likely to sit the primary out, Sracic said.

“It's the base, it turns out, it's the more extreme voters that are there. So to get the nomination, you've got to really run to the right, if you're a Republican or to the left, if you're a Democrat,” Sracic said. “If you don't have to worry about any real competition in the fall, then your rhetoric can be as extreme as you want in the primary election, because you don't have to worry about turning out voters in the fall because those voters have nowhere else to go.”

With fewer moderates in the conversation, wedges between the sides expand, creating a more polarized environment with little compromise, more extreme legislative slates, celebrity politics and less, if any, communication across different perspectives.

“When you have extreme folks running in a primary, and then they get elected, and they get sent to try to work in the Ohio House, they're not going there to work with people across the aisle. They can't do it. They're extremists. They don't know how to compromise. They don't know how to negotiate. They're beholden to the extreme,” Lewis said.

Experts say that isn’t likely to improve without true competition in truly fair districts or a new way of holding primaries.

Two-party competition, despite gerrymandering in Trumbull County

Former Trumbull County Republican Party Chair Kevin Wyndham knows what it’s like to run a political party that’s been stripped of its power because of gerrymandered congressional maps.

He took over the party at a time several years ago when few Republican candidates ran for anything, let alone won any elections.

“Frankly, it was a gerrymandered district to Democrats. I mean, it was very hard for a Republican to have a fair shot. And that was on purpose,” he said.

He wanted to change that.

“I wanted a legitimate, two-party system,” he said.

His efforts weren’t just to lift up his party in the county.

“If you have a valid two-party system, you're going to get the best Democrats and the best Republicans, because they're going to have to put forward the best candidates to win the elections. And then you get the best, you get the best government officials. And then everybody wins,” Wyndham said.

The efforts led to some local gains for the party in 2020, with the election of Republicans to a county commissioner seat and a state Senate seat.

Wyndham credits the “energy” Donald Trump brought to the party, invigorating and motivating the party and voters.

The county chose Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 and then in 2020 over Joe Biden. The 2016 election marked the first time the county chose a Republican for president since 1972.

Wyndham said the county as a political district is starting to change. More Republicans are finding it worthwhile to run in a Democrat-prominent district, though Democrats do still dominate local races. The effect that redistricting will have on the county remains to be seen.

But, Wyndham worries about the effect that deeper divides and polarization will have on the community.

“Nothing's going to get fixed if we don't talk,” Wyndham said. “No one can admit that there's a middle ground, you know, the issue share I mean, there's got to be more that brings us together than separates us in this system.”

But, Ohio’s drawn-out redistricting crisis isn’t instilling confidence in Sracic.

“The one thing that Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on is the importance of protecting incumbents. And, you know, maximizing non-competitive districts,” Sracic said.
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