A real opportunity to drain the proverbial swamp is occurring outside of the political spotlight.
While most political enthusiasts are focused on the fire and fury of the latest White House dust-up, they would be wise to turn their gaze toward the Supreme Court, where a case under consideration could have implications on the electoral landscape in many states, including Ohio.
A fundamental tenet of democracy is in the crosshairs in Gill v. Whitford. The high court’s verdict could either reinforce the principle of “one person, one vote,” in which we all participate fairly equally in our political process, or it could encourage the type of backroom politics that disengages voters.
In this case, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin are accused of structuring legislative districts to favor the GOP when maps were redrawn in 2011. Republican legislators contend the new maps reflect the reality that Republican voters, who tend to live in rural areas, are more spread out throughout the state, while Democratic voters are more prone to live in condensed, urban areas. Therefore, the GOP wins the land-mass contest and, consequently, control of more legislative districts.
Democrats argue it is part of an intentional effort to use gerrymandering for political gain, and they have emails and other correspondence to back their claims.
It all comes down to a factor known as the efficiency gap, which measures how many votes from either party are wasted due to redistricting that virtually assures the other party’s outcome in a particular legislative district. The standard threshold, as suggested by the measure’s authors, for the efficiency gap raising red flags is 7 percent. Interestingly, Ohio’s current congressional district map violates the 7 percent threshold in favor of Republicans.
To its credit, in 2015, Ohio overwhelmingly approved, with 71 percent of the vote, to overhaul the way state legislative districts are drawn, by expanding a redistricting committee that curtails the ability of the ruling party to enforce its will. Efforts are underway to apply the same rules to Ohio’s congressional district map, which will be redrawn in 2021.
Justice Anthony Kennedy likely holds the determining vote, but it is difficult to get a read on how he will vote. On one hand, he tends to feel the Supreme Court should not get involved in drawing districts but should leave that process to those on the state level using reputable standards. However, he has expressed a desire for a clear measure in determining if congressional districts are fair.
Further, Ohio Senate Republicans have drafted a plan they claim will limit partisan gerrymandering and involve both parties in drawing legislative maps. The Fair Districts + Fair Elections coalition takes exception, calling the plan a continuation of majority power control.
Although they are taking steps in the right direction, they should go further by letting the public decide on whether or not a completely independent commission is needed to draw congressional districts in Ohio.
No matter the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision or the Ohio proposal, a more transparent approach and established criteria being applied evenly is needed for a win for the democratic process. When redistricting is done out of the public eye, it somewhat defeats the whole spirit of democracy. Voters are largely taken out of the process.
In addition to compliance with the Voting Rights Act, I would favor federal standards for all states to follow, based on the criteria of:
• Keeping communities of interests together
• Similarly-sized districts in terms of population to protect the precept of “one vote, one person.”
• Contiguous districts
• Compact districts, to the extent possible
While this approach may not be feasible in the political arena, it would be correct and fair to all involved. It would also help to restore people’s trust in government so that voters are engaged rather than kept at arm’s length in setting the rules for the game.
In truth, it may not severely impact outcomes, as people of similar backgrounds tend to live together and naturally group themselves.
However, it would be the right thing to do. Sometimes, that should be enough motivation as we seek political swamp-draining efforts that are fair to all on the political spectrum.
Katy Rossiter, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of geography at Ohio Northern University in Ada. She worked as a geographer with the U.S. Census Bureau for 11 years, and her dissertation addresses criteria for redrawing congressional district boundaries. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.