It was a chilly winter day in North Akron, just a few blocks from the Sand Run Metro Park. Out in a straight line, heading just 4 miles southwest from this spot, you could travel through all four of Summit County’s Congressional districts.
But how long would it take to drive through the city and hit each one? I decided to find out.
It was bumpy ride starting in David Joyce’s 14th District. I zig-zagged through Tim Ryan’s 13th District heading south into Marcia Fudge’s 11th. A city bus slowed me down as I turned near downtown to shoot across the West side of the city to finish in Jim Renacci's 16th District.
In all, it took me about 20 minutes to hit all four.
Ohio’s Congressional map divides Summit County into four jagged, meandering pieces, making it – along with Cuyahoga County – the most divided in the state. And unlike Cuyahoga, none of the four members of Congress who represent Summit County lives in the county.
“Who represents Akron and dismembered Summit County?” said Ohio State University professor Ned Hill, in a testimony this fall. “A close examination of the congressional map shows stubby little fingers moving block by block across the county.”
Hill and about three dozen others were speaking to a working group of four state legislators studying how Ohio divides up its 16 Congressional districts. They all concluded the same thing: Ohio isn’t doing well when it comes to representative government, and is failing those who believe Congressional map-making should do all it can to keep cities, counties and communities together.
“Does Tim Ryan, representing Ohio’s 13th District, wake up every morning and begin by reading the Beacon Journal or is it Youngstown’s Vindicator? Does Marcia Fudge begin her day with Cleveland’s Plain Dealer or the Beacon? Does David Joyce primarily represent metropolitan Cleveland, Akron or Northeast Ohio?” Hill asked the legislators.
“Nobody represents Summit County.”
More Advocates, Or None?
Gary Barker, a commercial real estate appraiser who lives in Green, said he feels grossly underrepresented in Congress. Its nearby districts stretch 50 miles or more to the north, east and west of Summit County.
“I can walk to three districts from my house, and you would think, ‘O.K., well then I may be really represented. Maybe I could call three different people if I have a problem,’” Barker says.
But Barker says that's not the way it works.
"They all care about my area, sure, but each one of those representatives -- Fudge, Renacci and Ryan -- lives more than 30-minute drive from my house,” Barker says.
To Barker, that means issues specific to Akron and Summit County can be pushed aside in favor of constituencies in Cleveland, Youngstown or Wooster.
Democrat Marcia Fudge represents Ohio’s 11th District, stretching from Cleveland south through Fairlawn and into downtown Akron. It's an overwhelmingly blue district, one of just four in Ohio. The other 12 lean strongly red.
Fudge told the Akron Press Club in 2014 that affects not just politics, but governing.
“So when you’re in a district that is more and more red, you don’t worry about trying to work with people in districts that are more and more blue, because you are playing to your base,” Fudge said. “So it has a tremendous affect, there’s no question about it.”
Drawing The Lines
Ohio’s Congressional lines are drawn by the state legislature every 10 years, following the U.S. Census, with the party in power pulling the strings.
Nationally, there are never more than 435 seats in the House of Representatives to be divided among the states. When Ohio's population grew slower than other states, it lost two Congressional seats, dropping from 18 to 16.
And the Republicans in charge of the state legislature in 2011 drew the new map, using precise demographic and political data to pack the lion’s share of likely Democratic voters into four of the state’s 16 districts. The other districts, they tiled toward Republicans.
This left Summit County with two Republican and two Democratic representatives.
“Summit County, essentially, is almost large enough to have one representative, one Congressional representative,” said Ohio state Rep. Emilia Sykes. “And the fact that we have four countywide is mind boggling.”
Sykes represents most of Akron in the Ohio House, and she said the way the Congressional map is drawn fractures an area that voted mostly Democratic in the last presidential election.
"It is very telling that the goal here is to pack certain types of voters so that they aren’t competitive with others,” Sykes says.
She said lawmakers are picking their voters, instead of voters picking their lawmakers.
“In the end you know you’re simply there as a guest and you don’t have equal power or rights,” Sykes says.
The map is scheduled to be drawn again after the 2020 Census. If nothing changes, the party that controls Ohio’s House and Senate and the governor’s office – turbocharged with even more sophisticated ways of analyzing voter behavior – will determine where the lines go.
But it’s increasingly likely something will change, as both state lawmakers and voter advocacy groups are developing alternatives to the map-making process to put before voters next year.