The stakes for the 2020 presidential race have been raised in Ohio. The three-judge U.S. District Court in Cincinnati recently ruled that Ohio’s congressional districts are not proportional to the way individuals in Ohio vote and must be redrawn.
This ruling would seem to verify what recent election results seem to indicate. Although Donald Trump won Ohio’s electoral votes in 2016, the overall count was much closer than many think, with Trump winning 52 percent of the vote, compared to 44 percent for Democrat opponent Hillary Clinton.
However, despite a statewide vote that is fairly balanced, Ohio has a glaring disparity in terms of representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The state currently has 12 Republican districts, compared to four Democrat districts.
Congressional districts should be designed to provide as many people as possible the chance to elect their preferred candidate. When the lines are drawn in such a way that entire communities feel like their interests are not being heard, as if the numbers are simply stacked against them, that goes against the purpose of these important boundaries.
However, the decision by the Cincinnati District Court is just the beginning of what promises to be a drawn-out process with major consequences. Although this court is requiring Ohio to redraw the congressional districts, the situation is far from settled. As expected, Ohio Attorney General David Yost, a Republican, has already appealed the decision, and it will likely wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition, Yost has asked to hold off on drawing new maps until his appeal is heard.
Once with the high court, the outcome is far from certain. The Supreme Court has recently heard several similar cases from states such as Maryland, North Carolina and Wisconsin. (The court has not decided on the Maryland and North Carolina cases, while the Wisconsin case was deferred to the federal court decision.) While the court has indicated it does not like partisan gerrymandering, the justices have found it very hard to measure or to know exactly when it has occurred. How much is too much? That is difficult to answer.
There are factors at play beyond shenanigans such as rumored secret hotel meetings and political stalwarts drawing the lines so they stay in power. Geographers have found that people are naturally self-sorting themselves in a way that makes it hard to draw fair districts, even if there is no ill intent. In other words, Democrats tend to live in clusters, and Republicans do likewise.
For example, in Ohio, we see it with the urban-rural dichotomy. Democrats are largely moving to cities, clustering with other like-voters, while Republicans tend to live in rural areas. With Democrat voters living in such cramped quarters, it makes it difficult to spread them among enough congressional districts to give Democrats the correct proportion of the vote without violating other criteria for congressional districts, such as maintaining an equal population count in each district.
When you toss in criteria such as trying to keep the districts contiguous and compact (rather than resembling a serpent), it becomes a complicated crossword puzzle, where one correction can cause other problems. This isn’t to say that Ohio Republicans are in the clear for drawing the boundaries the way they did, but it is more complicated than people may think.
What is interesting to me is the timing of these decisions. Creating new maps will take time, and the next election is right around the corner. It is especially worrisome because we may need to wait longer based on any appeals.
Consequently, whoever is elected in November 2020 will have an important role to play in drawing Ohio’s congressional districts. The next Census will occur in 2020, and Ohio will need to redraw all of their congressional districts based on the new population counts before the 2022 election. These boundaries could be in place for the next 10 years. Although Ohio recently reformed how these boundaries are drawn, asking for both parties to work together, the legislation in place in 2020 will play a key role.
In all, the recent court decision may cast a large shadow over the 2020 election.
Katy Rossiter is an assistant professor of geography at Ohio Northern University. She worked as a geographer with the U.S. Census Bureau for 11 years, and her dissertation addresses criteria for redrawing congressional district boundaries.