Snakes, Ducks and Toilet Bowls: How Does Ohio Shape Congressional Districts?

Dec 21, 2017

Ian Yarber, a former Oberlin school board member, considers himself a knowledgeable voter. He lives at the northeast end of Ohio’s 4th Congressional District, which stretches south and west nearly to the Indiana border.

But when it comes to how it or any of Ohio’s 16 districts were drawn, he hasn’t a clue.

“I don’t really know as to the rhyme or reason for the setting up the district,” Yarber says. “I’d be interested to know.”

Every 10 years, after each U.S. Census, the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are re-distributed based on population. Then, the states get to work drawing a new map of their Congressional districts.

In Ohio, those boundaries are set by the state legislature. Over the past five decades, Ohio’s Congressional districts have become increasingly “safe” for incumbents – because they’re strategically drawn for maximum political gain.

Who Controls The Maps?

In 2011, as in 2001 and 1991, Ohio’s legislature was controlled by Republicans.

“It would be hard for the process to get any worse than it is right now in Ohio,” says Rep. Kathleen Clyde.

A Democrat from Kent, Clyde has been in the Statehouse since 2011, when she was on the Congressional redistricting panel that drew the maps. But that doesn’t mean she had much input.

“The Republicans drew the maps in secret in a bunker in the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Columbus,” Klyde says. “There was no input from the public. There was no transparency. And it was just as partisan a process as you can imagine.”

By the time the map reached the Statehouse floor, you could hear the frustration from people like then-Rep. Bob Hagan from Youngstown. The Democrat was among those who complained about how lopsided the 16 districts were.

Ohio's Congressional map since 2013.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

“Stand up and object as much as you want!” Hagan shouts.

How did a simple map lead to chaos in the Statehouse?

“They’ve drawn districts that are just simply not competitive. We know before Election Day who is going to win,” says Dave Cohen of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.

“Packing And Cracking”

There's an art and a science to redistricting. The U.S. Constitution says each state’s districts have to have about the same number of people. In Ohio, that’s translates to about 700,000 people.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits drawing districts to dilute the voting power of minorities. According to the national advocacy group, the Prison Gerrymandering Project, that leads to prisons being spliced into rural districts. It boosts the number of minorities in a district, but state law prevents anyone from voting while incarcerated.

Yarber was born just two years after the Voting Rights Act passed, and he takes voting rights very seriously.

“I don’t have to get beat or firehosed or dogs laid upon to perform that right,” Yarber says. “I believe that’s something I should do because a lot of folks gave their lives for the right to vote.”

Cohen says districts can also be drawn to concentrate voters based on whether they’re likely to vote for the minority or majority parties, a practice called “packing and cracking.”

“You pack as many of the minority party’s voters into those districts,”  he says. “And then the remaining ones, you kind of crack and spread out among the majority party’s districts. By doing that, you create safe seats for everybody.”

Technology has made it possible to draw maps with such precision that next-door neighbors could end up in different districts based on how they’ll likely vote. And Cohen says that makes it difficult for the parties to compromise.

“You create an incentive to move their ideas and their actions and their votes more to the party’s extreme,” Cohen says. “Because they’re not worried about losing a general election. The only thing that they’re worried about is losing a primary election.”

There are competing ideas on how to fix the problem. One, a bipartisan commission, comes from the League of Women Voters and other voting advocates, which is collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot. They have about half of the more than 300,000 they need.

On a recent Friday evening, at Zagara’s Grocery in Cleveland Heights, volunteers next to the Salvation Army’s bell-ringer are among those collecting signatures. One of the willing signers was Roscoe Heath, who calls gerrymandering “un-American.”

“Whoever’s in power right now, they can pull strings the way they want to pull them and where the other side is under the tire tracks on the deal,” Heath says.

Cohen says partisan politics has long had a hand in Congressional map drawing, but technology is accelerating its impact to breakneck speeds. He says something needs to change to keep the voters from being run over in the next redistricting cycle in 2021.

A Short History Of Ohio's Congressional Districts:

How Ohio Draws Its Districts:

  • Based on the 2010 Census, Ohio has 16 Congressional seats.
  • Ohio's House of Representatives has 99 districts; Ohio's state Senate has 33 districts.
  • The state House and Senate create the Congressional map, with the governor's sign-off.
  • The rules that apply to the map making are a U.S. Constitutional requirement that the districts have roughly the same-size population, and the requirement in the federal Voting Rights Act that minority voters not be diminished through “packing” them in one district or “cracking” them among many.
  • Ohio has no special rules, as some other states do, that would require districts be compact or that districts do not split up cities and other “communities of interest.”