Politics

Ohio Passes Bipartisan Redistricting Ballot Initiative to Curb Gerrymandering

The new redistricting rules ban partisan gerrymandering through the state consitution.

Voters leave the Medina County Early Voting site. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot proposal Tuesday to reform the state’s redistricting process by requiring bipartisan cooperation in making new maps.

After polls closed, three-quarters of votes counted backed the ballot initiative. The measure asked voters if they wanted to amend the state constitution to require bipartisanship while drawing new congressional districts.

While not the worst offender, Ohio still has a great deal of partisan gerrymandering according to research from the Brennan Center, a non-partisan public policy and law institute in D.C. Republicans have held the state governorship and controlled majority of the state and national legislative seats for years.

But Ohio Republicans aren’t confident they’ll maintain control over Ohio’s congressional seats, said Justin Levitt, who researches redistricting at the Loyola Law School. Fearing a possible blue wave, the state GOP agreed to work with Democrats to pass a measure ensuring both parties must have a say during the next election cycle.

“Neither party knew who would be in control in 2020 drawing the maps,” Levitt said. “[The measure] takes a little bit of the gas out of the partisan gerrymandering process.”

Under the measure, new maps would require support from at least half the members of the minority party and three-fifths support in Ohio’s House and Senate overall. If the legislature can’t agree on a map, a seven-member bipartisan commission, with members appointed by state lawmakers, would draw the new maps.

If the bipartisan commission does not approve the new maps with at least two votes from the minority party, the state Congress would draw a new 10-year map approved with one-third minority party support or a four-year map with only majority party support.

The ballot measure is the result of weeks of work by redistricting advocacy groups and the Republican-dominated legislature to produce a new redistricting process. Originally, the advocacy groups formed a coalition, led by Ohio’s League of Women Voters, which gathered more than 200,000 signatures for the measure to make it to November’s ballot.

Compromise came early. The lawmakers and organizations agreed on the new redistricting terms and were able to put the measure on the May primary ballot.

This isn’t the first time Ohio overcame party lines to combat gerrymandering. Ohio passed a similar measure regulating state legislative districts in 2015, Dan Vicuna, National Redistricting Manager at Common Cause said. The watchdog nonprofit was one of the advocacy groups organizing in Ohio to support the measure.

“It was about bringing legislators to the table and getting leaders on both the right and the left to go out and make the case for this to the public,” Vicuna said. “We wanted to bring this to everyone’s attention and say ‘maybe we should make something better.’”

Although the ballot initiative made progress, it isn’t everything redistricting advocates want, Levitt said. The election commission is still composed of people chosen by elected officials, not independent actors.

What the measure would establish, however, is a legal precedent saying mapmakers can’t draw lines in order to benefit or punish a particular political party, Levitt said. Partisan gerrymandering is still legal federally and was allowed by the Ohio state constitution before this measure.

“Even if it wasn’t perfect, it was a significant step forward,” Levitt said. “It’s still a solid improvement over the status quo.”

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