Listener Asks OH Really? About Status of Voter-Approved Redistricting Reforms
When Ohio legislators redrew the state’s congressional district map a decade ago, Stark County ended up split three ways among districts 7, 13, and 16.
That won’t happen again when new maps are redrawn this year under a new process that aims to prevent gerrymandering, where lawmakers carve district lines to protect partisan seats.
What comes next? You asked. We looked for answers in this week’s OH Really?
“I look at Alliance and Alliance is particularly silly because it is represented by three different congresspeople," said WKSU listener Beki McCurdy who has lived in Alliance for 13 years. "It just really brought it home to me that we we sure need to do something about this.”
McCurdy is among the more than 70% of Ohio voters who supported ballot issues—one in 2015 and another in 2018--that called for drawing fairer maps for both state and federal legislative districts. She knew both issues had passed, but, "My question to OH Really? was, how is it that we don't seem to have done anything about gerrymandering in our area yet?"
A common question
"Beki, your feeling—'Well I voted on this twice and nothing’s happened,' is a common feeling of many Ohioans," said Iris Meltzer, a member of the League of Women Voters who lives in Kent. She also currently serves as president of the board for the state League which has—with other pro-Democracy groups including Common Cause--been working for decades to fix Ohio’s process of redrawing districts.
"Even though we did this in 2015 and then in 2018 nothing visible has happened because it depends on the results of the census," Meltzer said. "So district lines are not redrawn until the census data is available."
Typically that would be about now. But 2020 was not a typical year and the data has been delayed. The people who’ve fought for this new redistricting process, including Common Cause Ohio Director Catherine Turcer, are just as impatient to get moving.
"The reforms focus on keeping communities together," Turcer said. "So trying to keep counties together and cities and townships together and also focuses on greater transparency and giving us the tools so that we can actually testify and participate.
A tool for citizen involvement
One of the tools Common Cause and the League of Women Voters will be teaching people how to use is an open-source map-drawing program called Districtr.
Dan Vicuna is the national redistricting manager for Common Cause. He says traditionally new lines are drawn by those who are in power.
"What we're hoping to do with this program is to really turn that on its head and make it a people centered approach, right?" Vicuna said. "So that individuals who are in the community and have the ability to tell the story of those communities and give feedback to decision makers that's really very specific, very granular and powerful."
Districtr is a program developed at a Tufts University redistricting lab that’s home to the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group or MGGG.
Liz Kopecky is a project manager there with a background in environmental planning. The lab’s team includes mathematicians, geographers, data scientists and software developers.
"I personally am very excited to hopefully see maps be submitted as public comment and be really contributing to the process," Kopecky said. "Because I know you can have a really beautiful narrative about where your community is and what it is, but hopefully this mapping element will bring that specificity of where the community is."
Vicuna and Kopecky give us an idea of how Districtr works. “When you go to the Districtr website then you find Ohio on a map. You get kind of a fork in the road drawing communities or drawing districts. I'm gonna start with the community modules," Vicuna said.
He asks Beki about Alliance, where it's located and places central to the community. She tells him about Silver Park, a destination where people gather to exercise or enjoy events at the log cabin.
"I'm gonna add in some qualitative descriptions that you can choose to kind of keep with a file that you send a decision maker," Vicuna said. He adds Beki's descriptions about what makes the park important to the community.
"If we're not listening to each other's voices, nothing ever improves."
As he will with community groups that will likely meet over Zoom—just like we are—Dan takes Beki through the steps of mapping other community assets, identifying areas that should be part of one district.
He says people will discuss "and negotiate. Does this seem right to you? Do you feel like we share this park space such that we should be kept together? Or should we make the case to decision makers that we have different interests? Maybe we're using different transportation routes, there's different languages, minority groups, whatever the case may be," Vicuna said.
Beki is intrigued. "It’s fascinating. I mean my prejudice would be that everybody that lives in the same town should have the same district."
The new process
Ohio’s new process for drawing congressional districts requires that only the five most populous counties—Franklin, Cuyahoga, Hamilton, Summit and Montgomery—can be split twice. Another 18 counties can be split once and the remaining 65 counties have to be kept whole. As far as who gets the final say, Common Cause’s Catherine Turcer explains.
"The state legislature is tasked with coming up with a congressional map which has good support from both political parties, right and, and, of course, that is a significant challenge," Turcer said. "If they can't do that, then the map making goes to the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which is a bipartisan Commission."
It includes the governor, state auditor, secretary of state and two state reps and two state senators—one from each party chosen by party leaders. If they can’t agree on a map, the full legislature tries again. Turcer says the most important thing citizens can do is pay attention.
"We need to weigh in and let people know," she said. "For example, Beki, with Alliance being so divided. [Let them know] 'I don't want my city to be divided this way.'"
The League of Women Voters’ Iris Meltzer agrees and suggests, "Even when things get complex, do what Beki did and say 'explain please.'"
Common Cause’s Dan Vicuna has realistic expectations about the outcome of this new process. "There is no perfect map," he said. "There's just a difficult, sometimes time-consuming, people-driven process to negotiate what our communities are.
"If it's done by elected officials or their partisan consultants, kind of behind closed doors or in 'the bunker' as they said in Ohio in the last cycle that doesn't really serve the public, so we're trying to make this a really voter, and people-driven process."
Beki fully supports that idea and sees it as a way to improve our democracy, "..where wisdom coming from two completely different directions gets included in the conversation and honored, respected instead of just, 'What can keep us in power,' because I know I have learned so much from people that believe differently than I do, and I feel like my voice has maybe influenced other people in some situations to see things differently, but if we're not listening to each other's voices, nothing ever improves."
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