Five years ago, few people in Ohio were paying close attention to the claim that political consultants – armed with partisan power, increasingly sophisticated computer technology and big data – were in a position to hijack democracy.
Critics like Carrie Davis of the League of Women Voters looked at Congressional maps, drawn largely in secrecy by Republican state lawmakers, and issued a warning.
"Voters are ignored and made to feel as if their voice doesn’t count,” Davis said. “Communities are carved up so that they don’t have a Congress-person who truly represents them. Members of Congress are frequently threatened with being 'primaried' by the extremes of their own party.”
But voters repeatedly turned down proposals to change the system. That may be changing – not just in Ohio, but around the country.
A Wisconsin case is before the U.S. Supreme Court. A voter initiative is underway in Michigan. Lawmakers are debating change in Pennsylvania. And California has replaced politicians with a citizen commission.
In Ohio, voters reset who draws Statehouse districts in 2015. Now, Ohio’s Congressional map is the target of the next redistricting reform campaign.
From Pink To Dark Red
Right now, the League of Women Voters is collecting signatures from holiday shoppers for the Fair Congressional Districts For Ohio ballot issue, which would turn Congressional map-making over to a political commission with requirements for bipartisanship and transparency. Meanwhile, a state legislative working group also is talking about reform – though perhaps preserving lawmakers’ role.
Michael Li, of the Brennan Center for Justice, testified before the working group about the center’s recent study of Congressional districts. It found nearly all gerrymandering was concentrated in Ohio and six other states: Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida and Texas.
With the exception of Texas, Li noted, “they are all battleground states.”
And all states where mapmakers have particular power. To understand why, Li points to a precinct map: thousands of dots shading slightly Democrat or slightly Republican.
”It’s that light pink and that light blue that gives political operatives the ability to slice and dice and then artfully recombine voters in a way that puts the thumb on the scale and gives one party or the other an advantage,” Li said.
Mark Salling, a geographer and research associate at the Levin Urban College at Cleveland State University, spent three decades developing the database of Census data and election results used in Congressional mapmaking.
From the get-go, he says it was important to make that database publicly available.
“My hope was that through a democratic process we would come to some good democratic resolution of boundary issues,” Salling said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the way it has worked.”
Instead of being used in a nonpartisan way, that voter data went through increasingly sophisticated computer programs, giving the party in power the results it wanted.
And Michael Li warns far worse is coming.
“We will, in 2021, have data at the individualized level based on what you search in Google, based on your credit score, based on what kind of car you drive, and that will make it possible to be even more artful in slicing and dicing voters,” Li said.
Salling says the better tech also will allow thousands of trial maps to be spit out in moments. But he says if states change who draws the maps – and ensure the process is transparent – that technology could also be a boon to voter participation
Much of the national call for change has been focused on that map-drawing process. This week, a group in Michigan submitted more than 425,000 signatures to get an issue on the ballot to replace state lawmakers with a 13-member citizens’ commission of Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Republicans call it a disguised Democratic Party attempt to gerrymander. But Li said a similar commission took over in deeply blue California.
“Democrats have to approve a map and Republicans have to approve a map and independents have to approve a map,” Li said. “And that has fostered negotiation, it’s fostered a much more consensus-oriented process.”
Catherine LaCroix, who's been petitioning for the League of Women Voters since the summer, says passion – and their list of voter signatures – is growing. She dreams, although tongue-in-cheek, of one name that’s missing from her list: U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, who helped engineer Ohio’s current map.
“He would come out of retirement and say, ‘O.K., folks, I’ve looked at how things turned out. What we did didn’t work out the way we thought it was going to, that we have in fact contributed to the dysfunction in Congress, and I’m sorry.’”
On second thought, she says, she’ll take the signature and waive the apology.
How Two States Are Handling Redistricting, Courtesy Of Ballotpedia:
California: An independent commission, established in 2008, draws Congressional and state legislative lines. The commission has 14 members: five Democrats, five Republicans, and independents. Criteria for commissioners include participation in elections and length of party affiliation, and prohibitions against lobbyists and political staffers, consultants and contributors. To approve a map, nine of the commission's 14 members – including three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents – must vote for it.
The California Constitution requires districts to be contiguous and says "to the extent possible, [districts] must ... preserve the geographic integrity of cities, counties, neighborhoods and communities of interest." Districts must also "encourage compactness."
Iowa: The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, aided by an independent commission, drafts Congressional and state legislative district boundaries that lawmakers approve or reject but cannot alter. If the legislature rejects the plan, the LSA must draft a second proposal. If the legislature rejects the second proposal, the LSA drafts a final set of maps. Only then can the legislature draw its own maps, but that has never happened.
Criteria for the maps include that districts be "convenient and contiguous" and that the maps must preserve the integrity of counties and cities and be "to the extent consistent with other requirements, reasonably compact.”
Efforts Around The Country To Reform Redistricting, Courtesy Of The Brennan Center:
Michigan: Voters Not Politicians turned in 425,000 signatures to get a ballot issue before voters next year to replace state lawmakers' role in drawing political boundaries with a “citizens’ redistricting commission.” It needs 315,654 valid signatures to qualify.
Missouri: Clean Missouri, a coalition of unions and progressive groups, is campaigning for a constitutional amendment on next year's ballot that would require a statistical model for redistricting. A nonpartisan state demographer would draw legislative lines that lawmakers would approve. The coalition must collect just over 160,000 signatures by May.
Oregon: Fair Redistricting Task Force, led by Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, was established in February to study best practices of redistricting reforms. It released a report in October recommending an 11-member commission to draw maps, implementing procedures for public input and hearings during the map-drawing process, and using ranked-order criteria. A constitutional amendment needs at least 117,578 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
South Dakota: A proposed constitutional amendment by Citizens for Fair Elections would implement a nine-member independent commission to draw state legislative boundaries beginning in 2021. No more than three of the members could be from the same political party. The amendment specifies that party registration, voting history, and residency of incumbents or candidates may not be considered in the map drawing process. The commission would also be required to publicize draft maps and accept written comments before adopting a final plan. The coalition has submitted more than 34,000 signatures to the Secretary of State; nearly 28,000 of them must be valid to make the ballot next year.
Colorado: Fair Districts Colorado plans to run a package of ballot initiatives to create an independent commission to draw Colorado’s congressional and state legislative lines. Two of the draft proposals would put redistricting in the hands of a 12-member citizens commission; a third proposal would include both lawmakers and citizens on an 11-member commission. Both commissions would include unaffiliated voters. The proposals require a supermajority vote, including at least one independent commissioner, to adopt a final map. The commission must also conduct a series of public hearings.
Utah: Utahns for Responsive Government wants to create a seven-member redistricting commission to advise Utah lawmakers beginning in 2021. The commissioners would be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders and must follow ranked-order criteria to draw districts. Priority would include preserving communities of interest and neighborhoods. The proposal would also prohibit the commission and the legislature from considering partisan political data unless necessary to comply with other redistricting criteria.