Steve Hoffman: Drawn to gridlock


First Posted: 9/17/2011

The new congressional districts being rammed through the Republican-dominated state legislature are outrageous creations, which helps explain why they are being rushed through with so little opportunity for comment.Except from the most extreme partisan perspective, the districts are indefensible. Republican leaders argue their monstrosities are legal, but that doesn't say very much. The rules on congressional redistricting are so wide open that the new lines may survive challenges in federal court.The first thing to notice is how many fragments of counties the new plan creates.When community boundaries are violated so severely, representation becomes far more difficult. A preliminary analysis by an independent coalition called the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting calculated the new GOP map would create 68 fragments, compared to 44 under the lines as they now exist.Summit and Cuyahoga counties would be divided among four districts. Portage and Stark counties would be divided among three districts, as would Lucas, Franklin and Mercer.Is this really necessary? Not really, even when reducing the number of seats from 18 to 16, required because of Ohio's very low population growth compared to other states.The winner of the coalition's contest to devise new congressional districts in Ohio, ironically enough a Republican state legislator from Illinois, created only nine fragments under rules designed to encourage both compactness and competition.To avoid the latter is the underlying reason for all the slicing and dicing. The creation of safe districts for as many Republican incumbents as possible was a task not as easy as it sounds, because 13 Republicans were elected or re-elected in last year's mid-term GOP landslide. But House Republicans delivered for their party Tuesday, producing a redistricting bill expected to pass in days.Calculations released by Jim Slagle, of the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting, and by the House Democratic caucus indicate 12 safe Republican seats, with Democrats packed into four districts they are likely to win.Using measures based on past elections, Slagle calculated Democratic voting indices of between 62 percent and 80 percent in the four Democratic districts. The 12 remaining districts lean Republican, with voting indices of between 54 percent and 62 percent.Sure, upsets do happen, even in safe districts. But over time, gerrymandering on the scale being pushed by Ohio Republicans not only tramples local political boundaries, it also contributes to partisan gridlock by producing representatives who move to the extremes of their own parties.Lopsided districts aren't the only factor contributing to partisan excess, but they do have staying power, lasting until the next census.In safe districts, representatives must pay disproportionate attention to the activists of their own party, from whose ranks might spring a challenger in the next primary election. With general elections uncompetitive, the primary becomes the decisive contest.So, the ability to compromise, to move toward the center, becomes a liability, not an asset.Gridock is aggravated by other factors. In Ohio, term limits for state legislators mean a constant crop of challengers (by helping current incumbents of their party, Ohio's legislative Republicans are also creating districts in which they might run). Instant communications make it difficult to return to the district to explain a tough decision. And the effects of the recent Supreme Court decision on campaign finance, in the Citizens United case, are just being felt. The decision gave corporations the right to spend directly on ads urging the election or defeat of candidates.By going to such extremes to protect their congressional incumbents, Ohio Republicans have made their own signficant contribution to the continuation of a dysfunctional political system.