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After 212 years of drawing congressional maps, Ohio is still searching for truly representative districts: Mike Curtin

Vaseline 2 months ago

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Old maps tell timeless stories.

The oldest map of Ohio’s congressional districts, drawn in 1812, tells the story of a new state established from the 450-mile southern border.

The Ohio River, which flowed 981 miles from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi, was the main route west to the territories and promise of America.

In the 1810 federal census, seven years after Ohio’s founding, the two most populous counties of the 44 existing counties were Jefferson, where the river meets the state, and Hamilton, where it leaves. Of the twelve most populous provinces, seven were on the river. In an agricultural economy, before railroads, proximity to waterways was essential for getting products to market.

Based on a census population of 230,760, Ohio was assigned six congressmen to be elected in each of the next five even-numbered elections from 1812 through 1820.

In drawing the state’s first congressional map, the Ohio General Assembly aimed to keep the counties intact, achieve regional cohesion, and keep the county population reasonably close to 35,000—the level of representation set by Congress.

The resulting map of six districts ranged in population from 31,931 (sixth district) to 40,268 (fifth district). The size of the districts ranged from 1,785 square miles (First District) to 13,392 square miles (Fifth District).

The map was drawn without controversy. In its first quarter century, Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party dominated Ohio’s public affairs. Federalists were few and far between.

But the dominance of one party would be short-lived. In the 1830s, the Whigs – Henry Clay’s party – emerged to challenge the Jacksonian Democrats. Partisan resentment soon erupted over the mapping of congressional and state legislative districts.

In national politics, fast-growing Ohio became a bigger prize. In the 1840 census, with a population of over 1.5 million, Ohio was the third largest state, trailing only New York and Pennsylvania among the 26 states then in the Union. That qualified Ohio for 21 U.S. representatives among the nation’s 223 — 9.4% of the total.

In 1842, more than a decade before the birth of the Republican Party, Democrats in control of the Ohio General Assembly hatched a plan to redistrict the 21 congressional districts to create 12 safe seats for themselves, eliminating Whigs in seven districts. divide and allow two competing seats.

The enraged Whigs foiled the plan by resigning their seats, preventing a quorum for the plan’s approval and forcing a postponement of Ohio’s congressional elections until 1843.

That skirmish was merely a prelude to the knuckle-dragging gerrymandering that would soon come.

Between 1878 and 1892, as the state legislature shifted between Democrats and Republicans, Ohio’s congressional district lines were redrawn six times.

Although the nation’s founders intended congressional reapportionment to occur only once a decade, in the year after each census, no provision of the U.S. Constitution prohibits more frequent reapportionment.

Over the decades, Ohioans became accustomed to periodic political battles over redistricting, promised reforms, and failed reforms.

By definition, gerrymandering makes some ballots count more than others. Non-standardly shaped districts are created to divide as many opposing party voters into as few districts as possible, leaving more districts that can be won by the party controlling the map-making process.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that districts must have nearly equal population density, it ruled in June 2019 that partisan gerrymandering falls outside the scope of federal law. Without a federal standard, the fight to end gerrymandering must be waged state by state.

The latest battle in Ohio appears headed to the Nov. 5 ballot. A group called Citizens Not Politicians is confident it will collect far more than the required 413,488 valid signatures from registered voters before the July 3 filing deadline to qualify its proposal for the ballot.

The proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution would create a 15-member redistricting commission (five Democrats; five Republicans; five independents), removing powers from Statehouse politicians.

If approved, Ohio would join a growing number of states to create an independent commission to draw maps for congressional and state legislative districts. In 2018, Michigan voters approved the creation of an independent commission by a vote of 61 to 39. In many ways, the Ohio proposal is similar to the Michigan plan.

This article focuses only on the evolution of congressional mapmaking, and the many attempts to improve it up until the adoption of Ohio’s current 15-county map.

The U.S. Constitution does not prescribe a method for electing representatives to Congress. Most of the original thirteen states initially used multi-member districts. In 1842, six states elected representatives at large (in statewide elections), while 22 states elected them in single-member districts. That year, Congress passed a law requiring the use of single-member districts. However, some states claimed state sovereignty, ignored the law, and continued to elect representatives at large. Then, in 1850, Congress dropped the single-member requirement.

Ohio elected one at-large congressman from 1803 to 1810. During three other periods, the General Assembly chose to elect one or two at-large members of Congress, with the rest selected from districts.

Ohio’s last two major congressmen were Republican Robert Taft Jr. (1963-64) from Cincinnati and Robert E. Sweeney, a Democrat from Bay Village (1965-66). In 1967, Congress passed a law permanently banning large and multi-member districts.

The story of congressional districting is one of an ongoing struggle to ensure that everyone’s voting rights are equal.

Since the first apportionment after the 1790 census, Congress has used five different methods to determine the size of the House of Representatives and allocate the number of seats to the states. House size has been set at 435 since the 1910 census, although there was a temporary addition of one seat each for Alaska and Hawaii after the 1960 census.

Although Congress sought rough equality in the distribution of seats among the states, it was not until the 1960s that the nation began to achieve population equality among districts within states.

Beginning with the Baker v. Carr ruling in March 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of rulings requiring states to form districts of equal population, although minor deviations could be allowed to achieve specific objectives such as compactness and keeping communities intact.

Before these rulings went into effect, Ohio’s 23 single-member counties had highly disproportionate populations. The largest, the 3rd District (Butler and Montgomery counties), had a population of 726,156. The smallest, the 15th District (seven counties in southeastern Ohio), had a population of only 236,288, according to the 1960 census.

Population disparities were largely tolerated because state legislative leaders cowered before the wrath of sitting members of Congress. “Hell hath no fury like a congressman whose district is being tampered with,” noted Michael V. DiSalle, Ohio’s Democratic governor from 1959 to 1962.

Since the 1960s, Ohio has met equal population standards while its share of congressional seats has continually declined. With population growth lagging behind the nation’s, Ohio lost at least one seat after six consecutive censuses (1970–2020); the delegation has shrunk from 24 to 15.

During the last three decades of the 20th century, with divided control between the state legislature and the governor’s office, the Statehouse adopted bipartisan maps, saving Ohioans from gerrymandering wars.

The peace was broken after the 2010 census, which left Republicans in full control of the Statehouse. U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Butler County, demanded a deep red card.

The resulting map was the most egregious gerrymander in Ohio history. Most of the districts were geographical absurdities. The most bizarre district wound along Lake Erie from Toledo to Cleveland and was less than a mile wide in some locations.

The uproar fueled a bipartisan reform effort. In May 2018, Ohioans voted 3-1 to amend the Ohio Constitution to “end the partisan process for drawing congressional districts,” promote bipartisanship, and create more compact districts.

The promise: Maps would “not unduly favor or disadvantage any political party or its incumbents.”

The promise remained unfulfilled.

In drawing the state’s latest congressional map, the Ohio General Assembly’s Republican majority sacrificed compactness and regional cohesion to ensure as many Republican Party victories as possible. The current Ohio delegation: 10 Republicans, 5 Democrats.

One look at the map reveals several twisting, misshapen, anything-but-compact districts organized for the benefit of one party.

The map, drawn up for the Nov. 5 election, was declared unconstitutional twice by the Ohio Supreme Court in 2022 for violating the requirements of the 2018 amendment.

The fatal flaw of the amendment was the lack of an enforcement mechanism. The Republican majority simply stuck to its cards, ignored the court’s orders and waited for a change in the court’s composition, which happened during the November 2022 elections.

Mike Curtin is the former editor and associate publisher of the Columbus Dispatch, a two-term state legislator and a former member of the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission.

Gov. Mike DeWine, a two-term Republican not inclined to deny the obvious, acknowledged last August that the 2018 promise had not been kept.

“The system we have today doesn’t work very well,” DeWine said. “I am in favor of a change.”

Although DeWine has not endorsed the Citizens Not Politicians proposal, his assessment underscores the reality that after 212 years of drawing congressional maps, Ohio is still trying to deliver on the promise of truly representative districts.

Mike Curtin is the former editor and associate publisher of the Columbus Dispatch, a two-term state legislator and a former member of the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission.

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