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Ohio's redistricting breakthrough

Against all odds, Ohio is poised to approve a plan to make the state’s redistricting system fairer and less partisan. What can other states learn?
Ohio State students wait in line to place their votes on Nov. 6, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Joel Prince/The Washington Post/Getty)
Ohio State students wait in line to place their votes on Nov. 6, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio.

For over a decade, Ohio has been the nation’s most fiercely contested swing state, and its politics are as polarized as anywhere in the country. And yet, lawmakers from both parties somehow came together last week to approve a widely-praised plan aimed at making the state’s redistricting system fairer and less partisan.

The state Senate voted 32-1 Friday in favor of the plan. If it passes a final vote in the House, as expected, it will go before voters next fall.

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The breakthrough comes amid growing, nationwide concern that rampant partisan gerrymandering threatens the legitimacy and responsiveness of our democracy, producing a shrinking number of competitive races and a House of Representatives whose partisan alignment is badly out of whack with voters’ preferences.

So, can Ohio offer the rest of the country any lessons? Perhaps, but there certainly aren't any magic bullets.

After winning full control of state government in 2010, Ohio Republicans gerrymandered with ruthless efficiency. The result: In 2012, the GOP won 12 out of 16 U.S. House races while capturing just 52% of the combined votes in those races. State-level districts also were drawn to benefit Republicans and minimize the number of competitive races.

If approved by voters next fall, the new plan would create a seven-member redistricting commission comprising the governor, secretary of state, state auditor and four lawmakers — two from each chamber and from each party. More important, the panel would have to abide by certain criteria in drawing district lines during the once-a-decade process: They could not draw lines to favor one party over the other, and they would have to aim to keep counties and communities together. The number of districts that lean toward one party or the other would have to bear some relation to recent statewide voting behavior.

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If a map didn’t win approval from at least two members of the minority party, it would only be good for six years, instead of 10.

Of course, much depends on how the details of the plan end up getting enforced. But experts and good-government advocates are hailing the deal as a clear step forward for Ohio and a rare, genuine bipartisan accomplishment. “Ohio for so long has been a shining example of everything that’s wrong with our nation’s electoral system,” said Daniel Tokaji, an election law professor at Ohio State University. “It’s quite remarkable that the two parties were able to come to an agreement here.”

But the plan has one major shortcoming: It applies only to maps for state-level races, not congressional races. Supporters of an earlier version of the plan that included Congressional districts say that’s because of opposition from House Speaker John Boehner, who represents an Ohio district and was opposed to changes that could affect the congressional delegation.

That highlights one major obstacle to making progress on the congressional level. Once redistricting starts directly affecting the interests of powerful Washington players, it becomes that much harder to pull off.

But any comprehensive effort to fix redistricting needs to deal with congressional districts. After 2010, several other states in addition to Ohio, including North Carolina, Florida, and Michigan and Pennsylvania, passed similar Republican-friendly maps. As a result, the party comfortably kept control of the House in 2012, despite its candidates winning over 1 million fewer votes than Democrats. And thanks to redistricting plans that protect incumbents of both parties, the number of House races that are truly competitive has dwindled in recent years — a prime cause of the low turnout we saw in November.

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Congress aside, there are also reasons why it might have been easier to get to "yes" in Ohio than in some other states. Because Ohio is closely divided politically, both parties feared that the other could be in control of the process after 2020. That uncertainty was even higher because the state’s process already involved statewide officials, not just the legislature, making it especially hard to predict who’ll be in control of the process next time around. 

“That’s the kind of leverage that was unusual — a leverage of fear,” said Rob Richie of the good government group Fair Vote, which focuses on redistricting and other election issues.

Compare that situation to, say, Texas, whose 2011 redistricting plan was found to have intentionally discriminated against Hispanics, and remains tied up in legal battles. Because Republicans in the deep-red state have little fear of losing control for the foreseeable future, there's little incentive for them to come to the bargaining table, absent being forced by a court.  

Still, Tokaji said the plan, imperfect as it is, could move the ball forward nationally simply by underscoring the level of concern about the problem, and showing that it’s not beyond the power of lawmakers to address. And that it happened in Ohio — where election law disputes have lately been the subject of years-long court battles — only adds to the potential impact.

“We already knew how hard this was,” Tokaji said. “The real big lesson from this is that it actually is not impossible — even in a state where election rules are tremendously contentious.”