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Ohio voters approve ballot initiative designed to limit gerrymandering

It's not a perfect solution, but it is better than the status quo.

Pelosi smiles. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Pelosi smiles. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

By a three-to-one margin, Ohio’s voters approved a ballot initiative on Tuesday that will make it harder for either party to recreate the aggressively gerrymandered maps that currently allow Republicans to dominate the state’s congressional delegation.

The approved initiative, Ohio’s Issue 1, will create a multi-stage, Rube Goldberg-like method of drawing congressional districts, which will take effect during the next redistricting cycle in 2021. It is not a perfect solution to the problem of gerrymandering, and it is likely to give Republicans a slight advantage in future congressional races.

Yet, for Ohio voters who believe that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed,” the new regime created by Issue 1 is a lot better than the status quo it leaves behind.

Under its current congressional maps, Ohio can hardly be described as a representative democracy. Few, if any, of the state’s 16 congressional seats are competitive, and 12 of those seats are gerrymandered for Republicans. In 2012, when President Barack Obama carried the state, Republicans won all 12 of these seats.

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So, while Ohio held an event every two years that it called an “election,” the outcomes of its congressional races was largely predetermined.

Issue 1 provides that future maps will be drawn using a complex, four-step process that, at the very least, will force gerrymanderers to jump through quite a few hoops before they could recreate something resembling Ohio’s current maps.

  1. The state legislature will get the first crack at drawing new congressional maps, but at least 60 percent of the legislature as a whole and half of the minority party must approve a map before it can become law.
  2. If the parties cannot agree upon new maps in this first stage, a seven-member commission takes over. At this second stage, at least two members of the minority party must approve a map before it can take effect.
  3. Should this commission deadlock, the legislature gets another crack at it. At this third stage, the 60 percent supermajority requirement is still in effect, but a map can pass if only one-third of the minority party lawmakers approve of it.
  4. Should the legislature fail the second time around, a final map can be approved by a simple majority vote. However, this map would expire after four years, and it would have to comply with a host of restrictions. For example, a map would be disallowed if it “unduly favors or disfavors a political party or its incumbents.” Districts also would be required to not “unduly split governmental units, giving preference to keeping whole, in the order named, counties, then townships, and municipal corporations.”

This last requirement does give Republicans an incentive to sabotage the first three stages of the process and then push for a map to be drawn under the fourth stage criteria. Because Democrats tend to cluster together in cities and Republicans tend to be more spread out over rural and suburban areas, maps that rely on compact districts that do not cross local boundaries are likely to pack Democratic voters together into fairly few urban districts.

Additionally, if the majority party holds out until the fourth stage and then draws gerrymandered maps, courts may not be able to intervene fast enough to prevent an election from being held under these rigged maps. So a majority party may sabotage the first three stages in order to put a gerrymander in place temporarily.

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Issue 1, in other words, is still likely to cause problems down the road, and these problems are likely to have a disproportionate impact on Democrats. But the status quo in Ohio is so awful that nearly anything would be better both for large-D Democrats and for small-d democrats of all kinds.