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Ohio’s gerrymandering reform was just approved by the state’s voters

It’s a rare bipartisan deal to reform redistricting. But is it enough?

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Update: Ohio’s Issue 1 gerrymandering reform proposal passed overwhelmingly during the state’s primary election, through the ballot initiative process. The backing from both state parties was clearly enough to convince voters that this was a deal worth supporting.

The new redistricting process, which affects how Ohio draws its congressional district lines, will be used when those lines are next redrawn, after the 2020 Census.

Original post: A strange thing will happen during Tuesday’s Ohio primary election: One of the most pro-Republican-gerrymandered states in the country will put an actual bipartisan deal to reform gerrymandering in front of its voters.

Issue 1, or the Congressional Redistricting Procedures Amendment, will be up for a statewide vote, and its prospects look good. Three months ago, it got overwhelming support in the state House and passed the state Senate unanimously. Both party establishments are on board with the reform, as are business and labor groups in the state. And activist groups are generally either supportive or neutral.

“There’s no organized opposition that we know of,” says Keary McCarthy, who’s working on the bipartisan campaign in favor of the measure.

So why would the Ohio Republican Party — which has controlled the governorship, dominates the state legislature, and drew the maps of its dreams in 2010 — sign on to a deal that could limit its power to gerrymander in the future?

The answer lies in the plan itself. Under it, the legislature would have to try to come up with a new map supported by a big bipartisan majority. If they fail, however, a one-party map could still pass — but it would now expire after four years, rather than the current 10.

Reformers see this as a clear improvement on the status quo, which gave the minority party little recourse. The Ohio GOP, though, sees it mostly as a way to preserve that status quo — fearing that if they didn’t cut a deal here, a more radical measure could have gained support and passed through a separate ballot initiative.

“I think it largely enshrines the process that we have,” says Republican state Sen. Matt Huffman. “It still leaves it in the hands of the majority party in the legislature, because people elected the majority party to make these decisions. But it also enshrines the concept of minority rights.”

Ohio has one of the most gerrymandered congressional maps in the country

The partisan breakdown of Ohio’s congressional delegation has remained exactly the same in every election since 2012.

The current rules for how congressional redistricting happens in Ohio are simple: The state legislature can pass a plan, and the governor can sign or veto it, just like any ordinary bill. That means that if one party has majorities in both the state House and state Senate, as well as the governorship, they can gerrymander to their heart’s content.

That’s exactly what Republicans did after their 2010 landslide victories in the state. As David Daley describes in his book Ratf**ked, the GOP rented a room in the Columbus Doubletree for months to draft a plan in secret. In the next election, 2012, President Barack Obama won in Ohio — yet Republicans won 12 of the state’s 16 congressional districts under the new map. They did so with only 52 percent of the statewide US House vote.

Since then, the partisan breakdown of the state’s congressional delegation has remained unchanged. The 2014 GOP landslide and Donald Trump’s surprisingly large 2016 win in the state led to the same partisan outcome in the same districts. And the Brennan Center has found that Ohio has one of the most gerrymandered congressional maps in the country.

Why reform has come on the agenda

Yet unlike in many other GOP-controlled gerrymandered states, reform has come on the agenda in Ohio in recent years. Part of this, of course, is due to efforts of groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, which have spent years pushing for reform.

But some leading Republicans also displayed a surprising openness to dealmaking. After the 2014 elections, Huffman — then a Republican state House member who had played a key role in passing the recent gerrymandered maps — introduced redistricting reform plans for both congressional and state legislature maps. “One of the things that I came away with personally was there’s gotta be a better way of doing this,” he says.

As the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Chrissie Thompson reported at the time, many Democrats were initially skeptical of Huffman’s sincerity. But eventually, they cut a bipartisan deal reforming state legislature redistricting — it passed the legislature with huge majorities and was overwhelmingly approved in a statewide vote in 2015.

Reform of the congressional maps was shelved, though, with then-Speaker John Boehner’s opposition rumored to be the key reason. But by 2017, the League of Women Voters and other groups had begun gathering signatures to bring their own proposed reform of the US House redistricting process for a statewide vote.

Ohio Republicans had defeated such ballot initiatives before — most recently in 2012, when a sweeping redistricting reform went down to defeat by a 26 percentage point margin. Huffman helped engineer that defeat. “One of my jobs in 2012 was to go around the state and raise money to beat back that ballot initiative,” he says. “A lot of people gave us money, and we did beat it back. But a lot of those people said, ‘Can you fix this? Because we don’t want to keep having this same fight.’”

But this time around, the midterm environment began to look increasingly challenging for Republicans, just as the new ballot initiative was gaining steam. “We had the specter that it could go on the ballot,” Huffman said. “We knew then we’d have to raise $10 or $12 million. Maybe we’d beat it back, maybe not. But that’s money we wouldn’t have been able to spend on Republican House races and other things.”

So Huffman and Ohio GOP leaders decided they’d rather cut a deal. And the Democrats and reform groups made a similar calculation — after all, the path to actually passing their deal would be uncertain and expensive. What they came up with passed the state legislature overwhelmingly and will now go before Ohio’s voters as Issue 1.

What Issue 1 would do

Issue 1, if approved, would create a new congressional redistricting process that would proceed in a series of stages designed to incentivize bipartisan agreement.

  1. To start off, the Ohio legislature would be tasked with drawing a new map. But they could no longer pass it with a simple majority vote. They’d need three-fifths support and the support of at least half the members of both major parties, in each chamber, as well as the governor’s signature.
  2. If there’s no deal, the congressional map-drawing would be punted over to the seven-member Ohio commission that exists to handle the state legislature’s redistricting. Here, again, bipartisanship would be necessary — at least two minority-party members would have to agree to approve a new map.
  3. If the commission fails, the job would be tossed back to the Ohio legislature. In that case, the threshold for success would fall, but bipartisanship would still be necessary to pass a map — at least one-third of each party’s members would have to vote for it, to pass it and send it for the governor’s signature.
  4. Finally, if all these efforts fail, the legislature would be permitted to pass a map with simple majority support. But the catch is that this new map would only last four years, rather than the usual 10. And again, the governor’s signature would be required.

Issue 1 has other reforms too. It restricts how often counties and other local governmental units in the state can be split up in the new map, and declares that any plan must not “unduly” favor or disfavor a political party or its incumbents.

The arguments for and against Issue 1

The new redistricting process looks elaborate and could well result in a bipartisan deal. But the key stage in the plan is really No. 4 above. It ensures that if the majority party really wants to, it can still pass a new map with no votes from the minority — meaning the leverage in the overall negotiations will, in the end, remain with them. “The majority’s probably going to get most of the map that they like,” Huffman says.

However, the deal does force any map without significant bipartisan support to expire after just four years rather than lasting for 10. Reformers also say the new rules about not splitting counties, and not “unduly” favoring any party or incumbents, could let them bring legal challenges to maps they find egregious. (Huffman is more skeptical of this, asking, “The question, of course, is, what does ‘unduly’ mean?”)

Democratic supporters of reform generally view the outcome as a win. “I think it is an example of what can happen in a good faith effort to come up with a process that is fair and just for both sides,” says Kelly Ward of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “Republicans in the legislature realized that voters were paying attention.”

But while opposition to the measure hasn’t been particularly prominent, the arguments against it that do exist mostly come from the left.

Stephen Wolf of Daily Kos Elections wrote a biting critique of the deal, calling it “fatally flawed” because it “essentially still leaves one party in charge of the redistricting process.” Wolf believes the redistricting process should be taken away from the state legislature and state parties entirely and handed over to an independent commission — and he thinks the passage of this deal will make that less likely to happen.

“Republican legislators shrewdly accepted that momentum was building against partisan gerrymandering,” he writes. “This compromise is quite simply a way to blunt that momentum while preserving as much of their advantage as possible under a false veneer of bipartisanship.”

The ACLU of Ohio has also said it “neither supports nor opposes” the measure because it doesn’t go far enough. “While there are some benefits to Issue 1, it still allows for partisan gerrymandering,” the group’s policy director, Mike Brickner, has said. Attorney Paul DeMarco has also written an op-ed calling on reformers to hold out for a better ballot initiative in 2020.

Indeed, even supporters admit that the reform doesn’t go as far as they might like — they just think it’s a worthwhile improvement anyway. “This is a much more modest compromise,” Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio said in a March panel appearance. “What I look for is mitigating the worst behaviors. And that’s what this does.” On Tuesday, then, we will see if Ohio voters agree.

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