Local Politics: Gerrymandering likely to continue in Ohio despite commission

The state’s voters have demanded an end to the practice of political gerrymandering, but the structure in place still incentivizes short-term power over long-term equity

Craig Calcaterra
These Ohio House districts were adopted in 2012. Critics have said the map represents gerrymandering that heavily favors Republicans, and the legislature is working on bills to amend the redistricting process.

The commission charged with drawing new lines for state legislative districts convened on Friday. The meeting lasted 18 minutes and, despite looming deadlines, the commission took no action and set no dates to take action in the future. If you think that this process will end partisan gerrymandering as Ohio voters demanded via constitutional referendums in 2015 and 2018, well, don't get your hopes up.

It's a better process than the one we used to have on paper, at least. Rather than a bunch of legislators and statewide officeholders from one party getting together in a literal bunker to see how many ridiculously-shaped districts they can form in an effort to give themselves maximal power, there is now at least the pretense of bipartisanship to the business, as well as a mechanism for voter input in the form of public meetings. Unless, of course, Republicans decide they don't want any bipartisanship, in which case they can dispose of that, ignore the public input and do whatever the hell they want.

I suppose I should back up first and explain, exactly, how this new deal operates.

Per those referendums, the Ohio Redistricting Commission came into existence and now runs the show. It still favors the party in power, but less so than the process used to. At the moment, five Republicans and two Democrats sit on the panel: Gov. Mike DeWine (R), Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R), Auditor Keith Faber (R), House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima) and Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) are there because those who hold their offices are automatically given seats. House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron) and Sen. Vernon Sykes (D-Akron) are filling the minority seats. Cupp and Vernon Sykes will serve as co-chairs. If the state offices were somehow divided up differently, there would be a more equal representation here. But, in any case, it's a better setup than the majority party in the legislature — which gained their majority with the help of unfair districts — drawing the new districts by which they can be reelected.

Where the problem comes is the incentive structure by which the commission is supposed to be inspired to draw fair districts.

The commission must meet a Sept. 1 deadline for having the legislative districts drawn. If a bipartisan agreement can be achieved in the form of a map that receives at least four votes, including the votes of both Democrats, the maps will go into effect for 10 years. Maps that get that kind of support, you have to assume, would be pretty fair maps. If they don't get that kind of support, however — if maps get simple majority approval irrespective of party — they can still be approved for four years, and the process will repeat itself in 2025.

The same deal, generally speaking, holds for U.S. Congressional districts. Here, the General Assembly gets the first shot at a bipartisan plan, which requires support from 60 percent of the lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, with half of the Democrats in each of those chambers agreeing to the map, in order for it to be put in place for 10 years. If that doesn't happen, the commission enters the Congressional redistricting process, too, where four of the seven members of the commission, including two Democrats, can approve new districts that can last 10 years. Or, once again, a simple majority can approve them for four.

It's not hard to see how this will likely play out strategically. Republicans have a choice between at least arguably fair maps for a decade or gerrymandered maps which they can approve over any Democratic objections for four years. Anyone with an even passing familiarity of modern political calculation knows that, if given a choice, Republicans will choose short-term power over long-term equity. Especially Republicans who all face term limits and have an incentive to do as much as possible to benefit themselves, their constituents and their donors in the short period of time they have in office. And, hey, if they don't get it all done in that time, they can give themselves another four years of short-term advantages in 2025.

Ohio’s current maps, on both the state and federal level, are among the most gerrymandered in the nation. There may be a putatively bipartisan district-drawing commission in place to address that, but the incentives to stonewall its progress and run out the clock until simple Republican majorities can ram through even worse districts are too great, and I strongly suspect that is what this process will achieve.