Home » A new ballot measure would dramatically reform redistricting in Ohio. Here’s how it would work

A new ballot measure would dramatically reform redistricting in Ohio. Here’s how it would work

Voting rights advocates in Ohio are busy updating their proposed summary language for a ballot measure that would dramatically reform redistricting in the state after Republican Attorney General Dave Yost rejected their first attempt, but they will likely soon get the green light to begin qualifying their amendment so that it can go before voters next year.

If it succeeds, it would replace Ohio’s current flawed redistricting process that let Republicans gerrymander the state’s maps after the 2020 census even though the state Supreme Court repeatedly deemed the GOP’s districts unconstitutional. The proposed independent commission would be tasked with drawing fairer districts for the 2026 elections and then again each decade after the census.

At its core, the amendment would remove redistricting from the hands of elected officials and place it in the hands of an independent 15-member commission made up of five Democrats, five Republicans, and five unaffiliated voters. Commissioners initially would be screened by a bipartisan panel of retired judges, who would in turn be chosen by the Ohio Ballot Board, an existing body of election officials appointed by both parties’ leaders in the legislature.

All members of the commission would have to be free of political entanglements: For six years prior to serving, applicants can’t have been an elected or appointed public official; candidate; party official; lobbyist; staffer, contractor, or consultant for a candidate or elected official; or an immediate family member of someone fitting any of those categories.

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An initial six applicants—two from each partisan grouping—would be randomly chosen. They would then select the other nine members, with a requirement that they reflect the state’s geographic and demographic diversity and receive cross-partisan support.

At the centerpiece of the amendment are several criteria for drawing new maps, among them:

  • geographic contiguity of districts;

  • compliance with federal laws such as the Voting Rights Act;

  • a ban on favoring or disfavoring any party; and

  • a prohibition on considering any candidate or incumbent’s place of residence.

But the most consequential is a requirement that maps reflect the state’s overall partisan balance, which would be determined by the results of statewide elections over the previous six years. Under the new proposal, the proportion of districts that favored each party in those same statewide races would, if at all possible, have to come within 3 percentage points of each party’s level of statewide support.

If the amendment were in force today (meaning it would look to elections in 2018, 2020, and 2022), it would yield a 55-45 advantage for Republicans. The state’s 15-member congressional delegation, therefore, would likely feature eight Republican seats and seven Democratic seats; under the current map, Republicans enjoy a 10-5 advantage. (The same proportionality would also apply to legislative maps.)

Should the amendment pass, the GOP’s edge would likely increase slightly when the results of the 2024 elections replace those from 2018. That could have a small impact on the legislative maps but would be unlikely to affect the congressional balance.

Maps would also have to adhere to a second set of criteria so long as the districts satisfy the first set. In order of priority, this second group includes:

  • “Reasonably equal” population, which includes counting people incarcerated in state prisons at their last known address to curtail the practice known as prison gerrymandering;

  • Ensuring that racial, ethnic, or language minorities that are politically cohesive and geographically concentrated have the equal ability to elect their preferred candidates, which is similar to a key provision of the federal Voting Rights Act;

  • Preserving “communities of interest,” defined as areas where residents have “broadly shared interests” based on factors such as “common ethnic, racial, social, cultural, geographic, environmental, socioeconomic, or historic identities or concerns.” Communities of interest can include whole political subdivisions such as counties and cities but can’t be based on political identity.

A series of public hearings around the state would be required throughout the process, including both before and after commissioners propose any redistricting plans. The commission would also be subject to strict public disclosure requirements regarding the data used to draw and assess maps, and members would be barred from contact with those seeking to influence the process outside the official channels.

Commissioners would have to release their first set of proposed maps by July 11, 2025, and would have until Sept. 19 of that year to adopt final versions. For every future year ending in “1,” the commission would have to release draft maps by May 1 and adopt them by July 15.

To pass a map initially, the amendment requires the support of at least nine commissioners overall and at least two from each party grouping. However, in the event that no map passes by the deadline, the commissioners would be required to use a form of ranked-choice voting to select from competing proposals to ensure that one of them obtains majority backing. If the ranked-choice process nonetheless results in a tie between multiple proposals, one of them would be randomly chosen.

Once commissioners pass a new map, any Ohio voter would have up to 10 days to challenge it in court. In order to expedite any litigation and avoid interference from legislators or the executive branch, the state Supreme Court (where Republicans solidified a 4-3 conservative majority in last fall’s elections) would have exclusive jurisdiction, and only the commission would have standing to defend their map.

If the court finds the new map fails to meet the constitution’s requirements, the commission would have one opportunity to revise it. If commissioners still fail to pass a compliant map, the court would hire outside experts by unanimous agreement to make the minimum necessary changes to the commission’s approved map in order to render it legally sound.

To help ensure the commission’s independence, the amendment mandates that lawmakers adequately fund it, which among other things includes compensation for commissioners. The proposal requires at least $7 million in overall funding for 2025 and adjusts that number for inflation in future decades.

Lastly, one smaller provision that should delight election nerds is a requirement that the secretary of state compile a statewide database of election precinct maps, which are currently only available from each of Ohio’s 88 counties. Pairing this type of data with the secretary’s existing database of election results is critical for analyzing the impacts of the commission’s maps, something the amendment itself recognizes: It specifically states that precinct maps must be published “in a manner suitable for analysis of the redistricting plans.”

If state officials eventually certify the proposal for circulation among voters, supporters would need to gather 413,487 signatures statewide, a number equal to 10% of the votes cast in the last election for governor. Proponents would also have to obtain signatures equal to 5% of the votes for governor in half of the state’s counties. Supporters would have until July 3 to gather initial signatures, though if they fall short, they would receive an additional 10 days to make up the gap.

Should the measure make the ballot next year, it would require just a simple majority to pass. Republicans had sought to increase that threshold to a 60% supermajority specifically to thwart both this measure and an amendment guaranteeing abortion rights that will appear on the ballot this fall, but voters rejected that effort by a wide 57-43 margin during an Aug. 8 special election.

And if redistricting reform passes, it could have a profound impact on politics in Ohio and nationally. Republicans have drawn Ohio’s legislative maps every decade since the 1990s and its congressional map since the 2000s. That’s resulted in 30 years of nearly unbroken GOP majorities. In 2012, despite the fact that Barack Obama carried the state and that Democratic candidates for the state House won more votes overall, Republicans won three-fifths supermajorities that they’ve never relinquished.

Reformers repeatedly tried to address the situation with ballot initiatives in 1981, 2005, and 2012, only to see voters reject them all. But as public disgust with partisan gerrymandering began to grow during the last decade, it appeared real reform might actually pass. To undercut any such attempt, however, Republican lawmakers themselves put sham reform amendments on the ballot in 2015 and 2018 that voters widely approved.

These amendments were sold as an end to gerrymandering but still left GOP elected officials in charge. And they contained a crucial flaw: While the state Supreme Court was empowered to strike down non-compliant plans, it wasn’t permitted to impose its own maps. That allowed Republicans to keep passing gerrymandered maps despite repeated court rulings against them until they could run out the clock.

And now that conservative hardliners have captured the Supreme Court, there’s likely nothing standing in the way of Republican map-makers doing as they please—which includes drawing fresh gerrymanders ahead of the 2024 elections.

While previous ballot initiatives to reform redistricting in Ohio may have failed, those efforts all took place at a time when gerrymandering did not have the salience it does now. In the last decade, voters in several other states have passed significant reforms at the ballot box, including in neighboring Michigan. While Ohio voters may not be able to stop Republicans from gerrymandering again this election cycle, if this amendment passes, it could be the last time the GOP—or anyone else—gets to gerrymander the Buckeye State ever again.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that a supermajority of commissioners, with a sufficient level of multi-partisan support, is required to pass new maps. If the commission fails to pass new maps by its deadline, only then can it pass new maps with a simple majority and without multi-partisan support.


August 2023