How can something that happens every ten years have more to say about who is in Congress than the voters? And what can we do about it?
Ohio’s congressional district map has been described as resembling a shattered mirror. Oddly-shaped districts stretch in all directions. Traditional geographic boundaries such as counties and cities are routinely carved into numerous districts, splitting communities.
Legislative districts are drawn every ten years. In 2011, congressional districts were drawn to artificially favor the party in power—the Republican Party— utilizing the tactics of “packing” Democratic voters together into a few Democratic leaning districts. Mapmakers also used “cracking” or breaking up natural political constituencies. “Cracking” divided Democratic voters and put them in districts with many more Republican voters.
The strategic manipulation of these districts—gerrymandering— led to truly uncompetitive elections. Although the total number of votes cast for each major party is consistently close to even in this battleground state, the political party that drew the maps won 75% of the seats (12 of 16) even though they only got roughly 50-60% of the votes.
Ohio’s congressional districts are so “safe” from opposition that the congressional map perfectly predicts which political party will win each district. The party that favors or is more dominant in the congressional districts won 100% of the time in 2012 and 2014, and that trend is expected to continue.
The result of this hyper-partisan mapmaking is that the competitive election—or the real election—occurs during the primary, not the general election. This tends to yield candidates that appeal to partisan extremes rather than the electorate as a whole. And more ideologically extreme representatives lead to difficulty compromising and to partisan gridlock.
Ohio is just one state and partisan gerrymandering happens all over the country. And both political parties do it. Consequently, the least productive Congresses in history have come in the past decade. According to The Pew Research Center the 113th Congress (2013-2014) was almost the least productive Congress in history, second only to the 112th Congress (2011-2012).
In November 2015, voters overwhelmingly passed State Issue 1. This bipartisan redistricting reform created a fairer and more transparent process for drawing state legislative districts. But it did not include congressional districts.
Now it’s time to finish the job. What’s good enough for the Statehouse should be good enough for Congress!
At this year’s State of the State, Governor John Kasich said that he wanted to see congressional gerrymandering in the “dustbin of history.”
During the lame duck session of 2014, the state legislature passed a resolution that put state legislative redistricting reform (Issue 1) on 2015 ballot. They could follow suit and put congressional redistricting reform on next year’s ballot.
Unfortunately, congressional redistricting reform faces some obstacles—our legislative leaders.
Speaker of the Ohio House Cliff Rosenberger (R-Clarksville) has described state legislative and congressional redistricting as “apples and oranges.” He has suggested that voters wait until after the 2021 mapmaking before advancing congressional redistricting reform. Senate President Keith Faber (R-Celina) described his opposition to congressional reform as opposition to “a divesture of legislative authority.”
So redistricting reform legislation languishes at the Statehouse.
Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent) and Rep. Michael Curtin (D- Columbus) have introduced a resolution to reform congressional redistricting reform in the Ohio House of Representatives. Senator Frank LaRose (R-Hudson) and Senator Tom Sawyer (D-Akron) have introduced a resolution in the Ohio Senate. Both of these resolutions are similar to Issue 1 of 2015, but neither of these resolutions have received a single hearing.
At a forum in Cleveland last month, Senator LaRose recommended that voters “evangelize” about the need for congressional redistricting reform and said, “We have to start with why it matters. Your neighbor or John Q. Public, the person you see at work or wherever else— they may not know why it matters…. The way that the districts are drawn causes polarization and dysfunction… all kinds of problems in state and federal legislative bodies.”
Learn more about congressional redistricting by watching this video. Find out how you can make a difference by visiting fairdistrictsohio.org. If you have any questions, please call Common Cause Ohio at 614-441-9145.
Catherine Turcer is Policy Analyst for Common Cause Ohio and is an expert on redistricting reform and state level campaign finance.