Commentary: Ohio Redistricting Reform Could Be A 'Bait And Switch' Situation

Feb 26, 2020

If your state has congressional districts that are such a jumbled, gerrymandered mess that they have nicknames like "The Snake on the Lake" and "The Duck," then you have a problem. You also live in Ohio.

Ohio is where Republicans have made the rules, and where Democrats take whatever scraps fall off the table.

If you are reading this, you may well live in one of those Bizarro World congressional districts.

Ohio's 1st Congressional District, held for the better part of a quarter century by Republican Steve Chabot, was drawn specifically by the Republicans in the legislature to protect the one-time Cincinnati councilman.

Seems his home base, his beloved West Side of Hamilton County, was rapidly turning blue, so the GOP legislators found a narrow land bridge to connect to Warren County, where a pool of Republican voters is deeper than the Blue Hole of Castalia.

Look at the 1st District map above. See the little appendage hanging down from the center of eastern Hamilton County?

That was added to Chabot's district – just for lagniappe – because it happens to take in some of Hamilton County's wealthiest and most Republican suburbs. People who routinely contribute big dollars to GOP candidates.

If you believe that was an accident, I want to play a few hands of poker with you.

I like to call it The Steve Chabot Preservation Act of 2011.

Ohio's congressional district map is a weird, twisted, hot mess and one that should look very different after the ongoing 2020 Census and the redrawing of congressional districts that will follow. But thanks to a constitutional amendment adopted overwhelmingly by Ohio voters in 2018 – an amendment that puts in place a new process meant to lessen the effect of partisan gerrymandering in congressional redistricting – the days of rotten tricks are over.

Or are they?

Will this be the end of weird, convoluted districts, designed specifically to be non-competitive and going to huge lengths to make it as easy for GOP candidates as possible?

Here's all you need to know about Ohio's congressional district map to understand just what a rotten trick the Republicans played on the Democrats when the districts were drawn in 2011.

Two things, actually.

First, there is this:

In 2018, Republican candidates won about 50% of the vote in congressional elections but ended up winning 75% of the state's 16 seats.

And secondly:

Since the present map was first used in 2012, not a single congressional district has gone from red to blue or vice versa. It is the same result, every two years: 12 Republicans elected, along with four Democrats.

Now, it was sort of a rotten trick, but politics can be a pretty rotten profession. The Republicans had control of the Ohio General Assembly when these districts were drawn and still do control the legislature.

Had the Democrats been in control, they would have tried to do the same thing, and it would have been incredibly difficult for them to come up with a 12-4 map.

Ohio is in danger of losing a congressional seat in the Census – not because the population is not growing here, but because it is not growing as quickly as it is in the South and West. Florida and Texas will be winners, picking up seats.

The new constitutional amendment will discourage mapmakers from splitting major cities in the state between two congressional districts – the way the city of Cincinnati is now.

In fact, Hamilton County should be its own congressional district, with a few little pieces of Butler County thrown in.

This will make Democrats very happy. If Cincinnati is not split, it will likely mean that a Democratic district will be drawn where two Republicans – Chabot and Rep. Brad Wenstrup – hold seats now.

The new 10-year maps will have to have more bipartisan support than those of the past.

A proposed congressional district map would require 60% and at least half the votes of each party caucus to win approval.

If the legislature can't come up with a plan that gets that much bipartisan support, a seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission can adopt a map on a majority vote that includes two members of each party.

If that doesn't work, the map goes back to the Ohio General Assembly where it can pass with a 60% vote and only one-third of the minority party's votes.

And guess what?

If none of those three methods of passage work, a majority vote of the legislature could adopt a four-year map with no bipartisan support whatsoever.

Which sounds to me as if we would be back to square one.

Not necessarily, said David Niven, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.

How this process works out, Niven said, "depends on whether you view the move toward fairer districts a sincere attempt at reform or a massive con job."

If it came to the point where the majority party could pass its own plan with no input from the minority, Niven said, it's likely that it would be a plan that is not so severely partisan as the map Ohio has today. But, he said, "it would not be the ideal result."

"The Snake," "The Duck" and whatever this monstrosity is that they created for Chabot nine years ago could possibly live on for two more election cycles.

Some reform, eh?

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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