Opinion: Gerrymandering: Funny word, serious problem

John Hess is a senior political science major. Contact him at jhess14@kent.edu.

John Hess is a senior political science major. Contact him at [email protected].

John Hess

Earlier this month my fellow opinion columnist Ray Paoletta offered his take on Ohio’s redistricting reform. He provided solid information and displayed an admirable desire to build a more democratic Ohio. However, I fear that the picture painted by Paoletta and others is too rosy. This reform is not a solution to our gerrymandering problems.

Readers may be unfamiliar with gerrymandering. U.S. elections use single-member districts, or set geographic areas, which elect one representative to the legislature. These areas, or districts, are not permanent or arbitrarily assigned. In Ohio a five-person board of politicians who redraw district lines every ten years based on census figures makes them. The goal of this process is to ensure that districts have the same number of people, even as the population changes. Unfortunately, lines are often drawn to favor the party in power while marginalizing the minority. This process often results in bizarrely shaped districts, hence the name gerrymandering.

The current plan supposedly solves this problem by adding another representative from each party to the board and requiring that any plan be supported by at least two minority members. Without minority party support, the map will last four years instead of ten.

While this will result in a slight increase in competitive elections, it isn’t expected to change the balance of power significantly. The Democrats will pick up a few seats, possibly exceeding 40 of the 99 house seats, but the Republican majority will remain unchallenged. By maintaining the partisan composition of the board, while also abandoning the pretense of redistricting due to changes in census data, this reform enshrines redistricting as a tool of political manipulation rather than challenging it.

This may seem counterproductive, but it’s what both parties want. The Democrats once dominated the state government for decades, and most would rather return to those days than take part in truly competitive elections. A similar reform plan to the current one was offered by Secretary of State Jon Husted in 2010, but failed to earn the support of key members of both parties. Having talked with a number of Democrats in the state capital, I was surprised to find that many of them didn’t want nonpartisan redistricting. They like the system as it is—they just want to be on the other side of it.

The Republicans have their own goals. They fear that if their domination of state politics goes too far, a ballot initiative might establish nonpartisan redistricting reform. The magnitude of the Republican majority is troubling as well. When one party is so completely marginalized in a two party system, most decision-making happens within the majority party. While this sounds great, an increase in competition within the party splits loyalties, leading to factionalization and a potential opening for the Democrats. Better to maintain a modest majority and throw the Democrats a bone.

And so we see that this reform is not a “step in the right direction.” It’s a tweak to a broken system designed not to democratize it, but to maintain the larger anti-democratic function of the whole.

A solution to this problem will not come from politicians. The incentives that state legislators face within the two party system means that they have no reason to reform the system. To preserve the principle of “one person, one vote” Ohioans must organize and push through an initiative to do what politicians can’t or won’t—build and protect democracy.