Ohio Republicans swing for fences in redistricting proposals

The Ohio legislature on Thursday began hearings into new congressional district lines in an ambitious attempt to maximize their hold on the state’s U.S. House delegation for the next decade.

Proposals from both the state House and Senate would squeeze Democrats into a tiny minority centered around two or three of the state’s largest cities: The state House has proposed a map in which Republicans would be favored in 12 of Ohio’s 15 congressional districts, while state Senate President Matt Huffman (R) has proposed a version that would give his party the edge in 13 of 15 districts.

“We’ve gone from a gerrymandered map from 2012 to 2020 to an even more gerrymandered map. It’s quite incredible,” said David Cohen, a political scientist at the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “This map’s going to be even worse. It’s a Frankenstein on steroids.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Both versions split Ohio’s four urban counties — Cuyahoga, home of Cleveland; Franklin, centered on Columbus; Hamilton, where Cincinnati is; and Summit, home of Akron — between multiple congressional districts.

And both versions radically redraw two seats currently held by Democrats: One is a Toledo-based district that is the home of Rep. Marcy KapturMarcia (Marcy) Carolyn KapturBiden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress Ohio Republicans swing for fences in redistricting proposals Acquiescing to Berlin, emboldening Moscow and squeezing Kyiv: Biden and Nordstream 2 MORE (D), the dean of the Ohio delegation and the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives. The other, centered on Youngstown in the east, is held by Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanDemocrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout Ohio Republicans swing for fences in redistricting proposals Ohio redistricting commission gives up on US House map MORE (D), who is running for a U.S. Senate seat.

The House version packs Democratic voters into just three friendly districts, centered on Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. It would create three districts that lean Republican, though none would be solidly so: One wraps around Columbus to the south and east, and the other two are made up of the remnants of Ryan’s old district.

The Senate version is even more ambitious: It would pack Democratic voters into only two districts centered around Columbus and Cleveland, while splitting Cincinnati between a solidly Republican district and a competitive seat that leans toward the GOP.

Both maps feature districts that stretch from urban areas, through suburban and rural areas to the state’s borders. In the Senate version, some Columbus-area residents would share a district with communities that border West Virginia and Kentucky. In the House version, voters in the Columbus exurbs would share a member of Congress with voters once represented by Kaptur on the shores of Lake Erie, far to the north.

ADVERTISEMENT

Anti-gerrymandering organizations were apoplectic at the two Republican-backed proposals, which came days after a redistricting commission created by voters in 2018 — and also controlled by Republicans — punted the authority to draw congressional map lines to the legislature.

“These districts were drawn to unduly favor one political party over the other, the definition of gerrymandering,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, which backed the commission system. “Neither of them focus on keeping communities together or focus on keeping political subdivisions together. They’re not compact, and they favor the party in power.”

The ballot measure that established the redistricting panel, and allowed the legislature to step in as a backup, sought to incentivize the majority party to work with the minority to create bipartisan maps. If proposed maps win a share of votes from the minority party in the legislature, they would be allowed to stand for the full decade. If the maps were passed along party lines, they would only be allowed to stand for four years.

But Cohen said the incentive structure would mean little if the majority party — in this case Republicans — believe they can maintain their status and control the redistricting process once again four years down the road.

“When you control all levers of power and you can gerrymander the state legislative districts, there isn’t an incentive to do anything beyond four years,” he said.

ADVERTISEMENT

The new maps reflect an Ohio that is losing a U.S. House seat next year because its population growth did not keep pace with the national growth rate. Ohio has lost at least one seat in Congress every decade since the 1960s, when it peaked at a 24-seat delegation.

Within the state, population has shifted too. The northeast corner of the state, around Cleveland, has seen slower population growth compared to Columbus, which has seen more robust expansion.

“Columbus is growing, and it’s one of the economic drivers of Ohio,” Cohen said. “Cincinnati is also losing a little bit of its population relative to Columbus.”