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Why you should care about gerrymandering (even if you've never heard of it)




Gerrymandering is going to be a word you'll hear a lot leading up to the November General Election. Whether you know a little about gerrymandering or this is your first time hearing the term, this explainer is for you. And we'll also tell you what you can do about this unfair practice that impacts our daily lives (even though we can't "see" it).


What is gerrymandering?


Every decade, all states must redraw their state legislative and congressional district lines following the completion of the census. But this is a good thing! With our communities changing constantly, informed and fair redistricting is a vital ingredient in a healthy democracy. New maps should

  • have districts with equal populations

  • comply with national and state laws (such as the Voting Rights Act)

  • and represent a state’s population as closely as possible.


At least, that’s the ideal scenario. Sometimes politicians create maps with their own interests and outcomes in mind. When this manipulation happens, it is called gerrymandering. "Rather than voters choosing their representatives," explains Sue Dean Dyke, founder of Mobilize the Vote NEO, "gerrymandering allows politicians to choose their voters." Areas that have a lot of racial segregation are especially easy for politicians to manipulate when it comes time to draw the maps – they simply draw a line separating “their” voters from the rest, giving themselves an unfair advantage when they run for office. And whereas decades ago these districts were drawn by hand, today there is sophisticated technology that allows politicians and their strategists to create extremely precise (and extremely subjective) maps that could easily put next door neighbors in different districts.


Here is a gerrymandering visual explainer by RepresentUs. Notice how in the middle example with gerrymandered districts, the Blue party is able to win the election despite not having the majority of votes.


Why is gerrymandering allowed to occur?


Unsurprisingly, gerrymandering is unpopular with the American public: polls from 2017 and 2019 show over 70% of voters (from both major parties) think there should be more restrictions on gerrymandering. So why has it persisted from our nation’s origins until today?


Gerrymandering occurs the most when the district-drawing process is left to the politicians themselves, especially if one political party currently controls most of the legislature in that state. When politicians are given that much power, they almost always put their own party’s interests above the voter’s. Gerrymandered election maps can also lead to some politicians winning their races despite not being supported by the majority of voters. And once one party has majority control in the legislature with no accountability, it becomes very, very difficult to remove them. 


[Read more about gerrymandering in America here.]


Gerrymandering in Ohio


Unfortunately Ohio has a long history of unfair election maps and is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country.


"Throughout Ohio history, the majority party in the state legislature has rigged elections by gerrymandering districts," says Mike Curtin, a long-time reporter who served in the Ohio Statehouse from 2013-1016.


Historically, both major political parties have benefitted from gerrymandering in Ohio. Currently, it is the Republicans, who have a supermajority in the General Assembly. The State Senate is about 79% Republican and the State House of Representatives is about 68%.


As explained before, the ideal scenario is for our state legislature to be an accurate representation of its voters. So you might be thinking that about 70-80% of Ohio voters are registered Republicans, just like our General Assembly. But that is not the case. When it comes to national elections, Ohio is split pretty near to 50/50 when deciding to vote for Republicans or Democrats. For example, Donald Trump got 53.3% of the votes in 2020 and 51.8% in 2016. That's hardly a landslide victory, and it's why Ohio was considered a swing state for many years.


But statewide elections are a different story. For several years, Republicans in the General Assembly repeat the process of drawing the legislative maps in their favor, guaranteeing their reelection almost every time. With their power cemented, they continually try to pass (or have successfully passed) legislation that the majority of Ohioans don't want, like strict abortion restrictions, anti-trans laws, and voter suppression bills.


How Ohioans are fighting back against gerrymandering


Fortunately there are a lot of individuals, organizations and coalitions who have been fighting back against gerrymandering for the past decade. Back in 2015, for example, more than 70% of voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that changed the way state legislative district boundaries are determined. As a result, the  Ohio Redistricting Commission was created. The members of the Commission were supposed to be appointed by both Republican and Democratic members of the General Assembly (as well as the secretary of state, state auditor and governor).


Here are some of the folks who have been advocating for equitable election maps:



But there have been some roadblocks. Those folks appointed to the Redistricting Commission that we just mentioned? Well it's currently mostly made up of Republican appointees, which has led to MORE unfair maps. These maps are so unfair that the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled them unconstitutional. But when the maps were sent back to be redrawn, the Republican legislators ignored the ruling and redrew the maps in their favor again. This process has been repeated 7 times so far.


Then in November 2023, the now Republican majority Ohio Supreme Court decided to "relinquish their continuing jurisdiction over these cases" and declared the unconstitutional maps "effective for the 2024-through-2030 election cycles."


But there is hope.


If we want our votes to count and our politicians to listen to us, we are going to need to work together and try a new strategy against gerrymandering. Luckily a statewide initiative called Citizens Not Politicians is currently trying to make it possible for Ohioans to vote on a better map-drawing process during the 2024 November General Election. Here is a helpful graphic by Johnine Byrne explaining how the new process would work (and how it would be different from past methods):



You can learn about ways to get involved with the Citizens Not Politicians campaign here.


Regardless of which party you support, the public loses out when gerrymandering is allowed. Rigged maps = less competitive elections. Politicians aren’t motivated to change when their spot in government is guaranteed. And having the same people in office over and over makes Americans feel like their votes don’t matter. 


So make your vote matter today by supporting fair maps! 



Sources


Julia Kirschenbaum + Michael Li. "Gerrymandering Explained." Brennan Center for Justice, 9 Jun. 2023.


Frank W. Lewis. "Ohio gerrymandering, explained." Signal Cleveland, 2 Feb. 2024.





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