'Gerrymandering Is Really Bullying': Inside Ohio's Attempts To Reform Redistricting

Dec 22, 2017

On election night two years ago, Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio couldn’t have been more thrilled.

“It’s like Christmas,” Turcer said. “I got the best present, and the thing that’s exciting is that this is for all of us.”

“This” was an Ohio constitutional amendment to create a seven-member bipartisan redistricting commission. Previously, Ohio saw citizen-backed ballot issues on redistricting that were rejected by voters.

But finally, in 2015, this one passed with more than 70 percent of the vote – likely because both Democratic and Republican lawmakers also supported it.

One problem: The amendment applied only to state House and state Senate districts. Advocates said Congressional redistricting was next: The current Ohio map has been called one of the most gerrymandered in the country.

Good For Ohio, Good For The Country

That Congressional map was drawn up by Republican legislators six years ago, with the process and the product kept hidden in a downtown Columbus hotel room called “The Bunker.” State-paid Republican consultants worked under the heavy influence of then-U.S. House Speaker John Boehner –though technically it’s state lawmakers, not Congress, that builds Ohio’s congressional map.

But the overwhelmingly-Republican legislature approved the map over objections from Democratic lawmakers. That included then-Democratic Party chair Chris Redfern.

“I think that this Speaker and his staff are far more interested in politics than they are in drafting a bill that could get wide bipartisan support,” Redfern said.

Democrats tried to take the issue to the ballot, which would have meant two different primaries in 2012 for Ohio’s 16 Congressional districts. Republicans tweaked the map slightly and Democrats signed off.

But frustrated citizen activists – led by the League of Women Voters -- started working on their redistricting plan, which would take the Congressional map-drawing power away from lawmakers and put it with the bipartisan commission set up to create Statehouse districts. They got a sudden and surprising boost in late 2015 – from Gov. John Kasich, the man who signed the law that created the current Congressional map.

“I think we need to eliminate gerrymandering, we gotta figure out a way to do it, we gotta be aggressive on it and we gotta have more competitive districts,” Kasich said. “That to me is what’s good for the state of Ohio and what’s good for the country.”

State Reps. Vernon Sykes (D-Akron) and Matt Huffman (R-Lima) were part of a 2015 effort to reform redistricting for the Statehouse. Now they're part of a bipartisan working group trying do the same for Congressional districts.
Credit Karen Kasler / Statehouse Bureau

Do Maps Really Win Elections?

This April, activists began collecting signatures to put their Fair Congressional Districts for Ohio amendment before voters next fall. But a few months ago, four state lawmakers were appointed to craft a plan to beat the clock and go to the voters this coming May: state Reps. Kirk Schuring and Jack Certa, and state Sens. Vernon Sykes and Matt Huffman.

“We must have a transparent, bipartisan approach to redistricting,” said Carole Lunney, one of dozens of people who testified at two hearings this fall held by the working group.

“Gerrymandering is really bullying,” said Kathy Deitsch.

Nobody defended the current Congressional map-drawing process.

But one member of the group -- Republican state Sen. Matt Huffman of Lima, who jointly sponsored the Statehouse redistricting reform plan – countered the claim that map-making increasingly dictates election results.

“The current system that we have, as imperfect as it is, allows the appropriate candidates, appropriately funded, with party support, and if the issues are the way they are, folks can win,” he said.

Democratic panel member state Sen. Vernon Sykes of Akron – who was also a sponsor of the Statehouse redistricting reform – shot back.

“As a political science professor, I would state that it’s found that the most significant variable is who draws the lines,” he said.

Since the hearings, lawmakers have been in private talks. If they want to get their version on the May primary ballot, they have it ready by February 7.

In contrast, because the Fair Congressional Districts plan is a citizen effort, it can only go on the fall ballot. But activists aren’t deterred. They’re halfway to the more than 300,000 signatures they need.

Advocates collecting signatures to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot say the current map is their best weapons.
Credit M.L. Schultze / WKSU

Those working on the issue say things are different than even two years ago. Maryann Barnes, who chairs the Cleveland Heights-University Heights chapter of the League of Women Voters, recently circulated petitions at a Cleveland Heights bar.

"Now, you know, we have our little sign that says, ‘Please stop gerrymandering,’ and people come to us to sign the petition,” Barnes says. “They do know now what gerrymandering is, and a lot of people are very angry about it.”

There’s also a third plan in the Legislature, which says if lawmakers can’t agree to a Congressional map, the bipartisan Statehouse district map-drawing commission takes over. But that bill has yet to have a hearing.  

Behind The Plan: Statehouse Working Group

  • Members: Ohio Rep. Kirk Schuring (R), Rep. Jack Cera (D), Sen. Vernon Sykes (D), and Sen. Matt Huffman (R)
  • Schuring has said some lawmakers have a concern that the legislature not cede responsibility for the map entirely. But the group is looking for broad support from the public.
  • Schuring was the only GOP member of the Ohio House who voted against Congressional map in 2011, saying his was concerned that dividing his native Stark County into three Congressional districts would dilute its strength.
  • The group has not announced a plan publicly.
  • The legislature faces a Feb. 7 deadline to get an issue on the May ballot.

Behind The Plan: Fair Districts Ohio

The group of citizen's groups, including the League of Women Voters, has collected more than 175, 000 signatures to get its voter initiative on the November ballot. (By law, voter-initiated issues can only be on General election ballots.)

  • The plan would amend Article XI of the Ohio Constitution to transfer responsibility for redrawing Congressional district lines from the state Legislature (with the governor's signature) to the bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission.
  • The Ohio Redistricting Commission consists of Ohio's governor, secretary of state, auditor and one person each appointed by the Ohio House and Senate majority and minority leaders.
  • Voters established the commission in 2015 by 71.5 percent of the vote to establish district lines for the Ohio House and Ohio Senate. Congressional districts were unaffected.
  • A plan must be supported by a majority of the commission, including at least two members of the minority party, in order to be adopted.
  • Any citizen of Ohio may propose a plan for the commission's consideration.
  • The amendment would go into effect following the 2020 census, and the new congressional district boundaries would take effect in 2022.

Here are the criteria the amendment would set for Congressional districts:

  • No Congressional district map shall be drawn to favor or disfavor a political party or candidates.
  • Each district will be nearly equal in population (one person, one vote).
  • The plan shall minimize the splitting of counties, municipalities and townships, and no county shall be split more than once. Districts shall be geographically contiguous and compact.
  • The Voting Rights Act and other state and federal laws that protect minority representation shall be respected.
  • Representational fairness is required. The statewide percentage of districts leaning towards each of the two major parties shall closely correspond to the partisan preferences of Ohio voters as measured by votes in state and federal partisan general elections over the previous 10 years.