This week’s primary elections drew a lot of interest, primarily because of some high-profile races for U.S. senator in West Virginia and governor in Ohio. But a little-known ballot measure approved by the voters in Ohio may have greater long-term political effects.
The measure, which passed with an overwhelming 75 percent of the vote, aims to curtail gerrymandering in drawing Ohio’s congressional districts.
"In addition to state-level efforts, the U.S. Supreme Court will soon weigh in on whether mapmakers have constitutional limits on how far they can go in drawing districts to benefit one party."
Ohio is known to have one of the most gerrymandered congressional maps in the nation. In 2011, Republicans controlled the state legislature and the governor’s office when it came time to redraw congressional district maps. They used powerful computer modeling to create districts precisely shaped to ensure that Republicans would win the maximum number of congressional seats. Their gerrymander worked. In the 2012 election, Republicans won only 52 percent of the votes cast for the U.S. congress, yet they won 12 of Ohio’s 16 congressional races.
Groups such as the Ohio branches of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have worried that the same thing could happen when maps are redrawn after the 2020 census. Jen Miller, the executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, noted in a statement that it took the women’s suffrage movement 72 years to secure the right to vote. “The League of Women Voters was born out of that movement, and that persistent, indomitable spirit is what caused us to lead the charge on redistricting reform from the 1980s through today’s victory,” she said.
Despite Republican control of the legislature and governor’s office, proponents of reform won bipartisan support in the Ohio legislature to put a measure on the ballot to amend the Ohio constitution to curtail gerrymandering.
That the Ohio voters overwhelmingly supported the measure is an indicator of the growing public concern about gerrymandering across the nation. In both red states such as Utah and Missouri and blue states such as Oregon and Illinois, steps are underway to limit how much districts can be drawn for partisan advantage. Several states are likely to have measures on the ballot in November.
Many reform efforts have bipartisan backing. Utahns for Responsive Government is headed by Democrat Ralph Becker, a former Salt Lake City mayor, and Republican Jeff Wright, a former staffer for Sen. Jon Huntsman. The Better Boundaries measure they are promoting is likely to appear on the November ballot. If passed, it would create an independent commission to draw the state’s boundaries in 2021.
In a 2017 column, Salt Lake City Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke noted the state’s current gerrymandered map means that not a single race for the state senate “has been competitive since the new boundaries were adopted and in 59 legislative races since 2011, the winner was unopposed.” He says that “independent redistricting won’t change Utah’s political makeup overnight—it’s a Republican state that will stay Republican. But it could mean more races that matter, politicians who have to listen and represent a broader pool of constituents and a more responsive government.”
In addition to state-level efforts, the U.S. Supreme Court will soon weigh in on whether mapmakers have constitutional limits on how far they can go in drawing districts to benefit one party. Paul Smith, who argued a gerrymandering case brought to the Supreme Court by Wisconsin Democrats, notes that if the ruling sets such limits, then in 2021, all states will need to avoid aggressive gerrymandering, lest their map be ruled unconstitutional.
Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, advocates of fairer maps are likely to continue their efforts at the state level to restructure the electoral map-making process to make districts fairer for all voters.