The Historic Effort to Change Ohio's Congressional Districts
The only statewide issue on the May primary ballot nearly didn’t make it – though it’s been talked about for decades. The long history of the complicated Issue 1, which some activists call a historic effort to change the way the map of Ohio’s Congressional districts is created.
Ohio’s current Congressional district map was drawn by Republican state lawmakers with input from party consultants in a Columbus hotel room in 2011. It includes 12 Republican districts and four Democratic ones in a state that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. It’s considered among the most gerrymandered in the country.
“When I think about where have we come from, how long has this been going on – I go back and think about the first time there was a redistricting reform measure on the ballot, which was in 1981," said Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio, who has pushed two recent ballot issues on redistricting, in 2005 and 2012. “I got involved twenty years ago. I’m new at this.”
A model for success
Turcer found success in 2015, when voters approved a bipartisan commission developed with state lawmakers to redraw state House and state Senate districts. She started working on Congressional redistricting last spring with a coalition of citizens groups called Fair Districts Fair Elections. They wanted a ballot issue this fall. And their effort, and a comment from Gov. John Kasich he was considering putting redistricting reform in his budget last year, got the attention of state lawmakers. Sen. Vern Sykes (D-Akron) and Sen. Matt Huffman (R-Lima) had worked on the 2015 plan. Huffman said in September they’d come up with something on Congressional redistricting that wasn’t perfect but would work. "Keep in mind that the last two efforts that were put on the ballot, really, by an outside group who said, ‘we’re just going to do what we think is right’ have failed pretty miserably.”
Sykes and Huffman and two other lawmakers held hearings on the issue last fall, which brought out no supporters of the current Congressional map drawing process but strong testimony. Carole Lunny said, “We must have a transparent, bipartisan approach to redistricting.”
Camille Winbish commented, “The General Assembly has the opportunity to restore fairness in our elections.”
And Kathy Deitsch added: "Gerrymandering is really bullying.”
In January, Republican lawmakers unveiled their constitutional amendment, which kept the Congressional map-drawing power with the legislature, not with the bipartisan commission that will draw those state legislative districts. And those lawmakers wanted the Fair Districts Fair Elections coalition to endorse their plan so voters could consider it in May. Weeks of talks went on with no deal – till finally, days before the deadline to file for the ballot, a compromise, explained in part by Rep. Kirk Schuring (R-Canton). “65 of Ohio’s 88 counties cannot be split at all. 18 of Ohio’s counties can be split only once. Only five counties can be split twice. So under this particular proposal, a county cannot be split three different times.”
The amendment also says a map that would last ten years – till the next census – must get 50 percent support from the minority party. If that doesn’t happen, the map would be drawn by the bipartisan commission. If that map isn’t approved, a ten-year map could pass with one-third of the minority party’s support or a four-year map could be passed without minority party approval – but stricter rules would be attached.
Huffman says there are a lot of incentives to bring in everyone and pass the 10 year map the first time, and not hold out for the other options. “It creates a lot of chaos and ‘what’s going to happen again in four years?’ I think for the public, having changes in Congressional districts and who their representative is is generally not a good idea.”
Both major political parties and many professional groups have endorsed Issue 1. But among those with concerns is the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which says it doesn’t guarantee there won’t be gerrymandering, it does make improvements in the process. And though the proposal is a compromise, the Fair Districts Fair Elections coalition is fully on board. But activists say they’re still circulating petitions for their fall ballot issue – just in case.