In 2015 and 2018, reformers in Ohio pushed legislators to change how redistricting is conducted in the state. Facing the prospect of more sweeping reform through ballot initiatives, legislators agreed to amend Ohio’s constitution to make changes to redistricting that created greater incentives for bipartisan cooperation while leaving the power to draw districts in elected officials’ hands. For state legislative districts, the new redistricting process empowers a seven-member politician commission. If a map passes with a majority of the commission that includes two or more votes from the minority party, the map will be in effect until the next decennial census. If it passes with a majority that includes fewer than two minority party votes, it will go into effect for two election cycles only and the process will be repeated.
For U.S. House districts, the new system gives the Ohio General Assembly the first opportunity to draw a map. If the legislature fails to approve maps with a supermajority vote, the same seven-member politician commission described above takes over. If the commission also fails, the General Assembly is again empowered to draw the map as a regular statute, subject to veto by the governor. If a map passes the General Assembly or the backup commission with a bipartisan supermajority vote, the map will be in effect until the next decennial census. If the General Assembly passes a map with a simple majority, it will go into effect for two election cycles only and the process will be repeated.
Community of Interest Story
Ohio activists energetically organized communities across the state to tell their stories. Unfortunately, the politician redistricting commission and legislators in charge of drawing maps largely ignored hundreds of community maps and hours of detailed written and verbal testimony to keep a laser focus on partisan advantage. However, one success story came through. The Fair Maps Ohio coalition energized residents of the City of Dayton to push back against a needless city split that would have divided city residents from the places where they obtain essential goods and services.
This placed Dayton residents at risk of being represented by legislators with less incentive to ensure that the hospitals, schools, and other locations they depend on received adequate funding. Thanks to extensive testimony, residents pushed back and demanded inclusion in the same district. Unfortunately, most communities in Ohio had less luck advocating for a people-first approach to redistricting.
Overall State Grade: F
Partisanship trumps reform: Unfortunately, this cycle, the Republican majority in the legislature and the politician commission showed no interest in bipartisan cooperation and drew maps designed to maximize the number of Republican seats. The Ohio Supreme Court struck down state legislative maps five times and the congressional map twice, determining that both violated state constitutional prohibitions against partisan gerrymandering. Despite these constitutional violations, state law contains no provision for an alternative body to draw districts. As a result, elected officials ran out the clock by making minimal boundary adjustments that did not cure the constitutional violations. As a result, in 2022, Ohioans were forced to vote in congressional and state legislative districts that were unconstitutional.
This redistricting cycle in Ohio provided a textbook example of the lengths elected officials will go to prioritize partisanship over fair representation for the public. The redistricting reforms Ohioans approved in 2015 and 2018 included provisions requiring some proportionality in partisan outcomes, which means that a party that wins 55% of the vote should win about 55% of the seats. A bipartisan majority of the Ohio Supreme Court held that map drawers ignored this requirement and instead focused on maximizing the number of Republican seats to the exclusion of all other objectives. As the Dayton example above illustrates, advocacy made a difference in some small ways. Longtime redistricting reformer Richard Gunther noted that “the difference between Map 1 and Map 3 showed that we had some impact.” Prentiss Haney of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative observed that advocacy “made a difference in ensuring that the worst maps were not passed.”
However, despite some successes on the margins, the process and results were unmitigated disasters. Common Cause Ohio’s Catherine Turcer summed it up best when she said that legislators are “willing to violate the Ohio Constitution, the expectations of Ohio voters, and are willing to tell the Ohio Supreme Court to jump in a lake.” As a result of the complete disregard that the Republican majority on the Ohio Redistricting Commission and in the General Assembly showed for the rule of law in Ohio, the state’s redistricting process receives an F grade.
- The process must be removed from legislators’ hands: The primary problem with Ohio’s existing process for drawing districts is the active participation of elected officials. The existing design of Ohio’s redistricting reform fails to provide sufficient protections against a partisan process. In addition, the Ohio Constitution does not empower a court or any alternative body to draw districts if the commission or legislature passes an illegal map. The willingness of Ohio Republicans to ignore the rule of law this redistricting cycle provided one of the most vivid examples of the need to create a redistricting process that fully excludes self-interested elected officials.
- Direct democracy fuels people power: Fortunately, Ohio is a ballot initiative state in which sweeping reform is more easily accomplished than in states where reform must be passed by legislators. Redistricting reformers have enjoyed the most success in states with a ballot initiative option because elected officials jealously guard the power to manipulate voting districts. Notably, attempts were made to amend the state constitution during an August 8, 2023 special election. HJR 1 would have required a 60 percent threshold for passing a constitutional amendment by ballot initiative. This measure was aimed at stopping efforts to strengthen reproductive rights and reform redistricting but was defeated with 57% of voters opposing the amendment.