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Drawing legislative district maps

2021 September 5

Encouraged by the Fair Districts Competition, I have attempted to draw legislative districts for the state of Ohio. I have drawn a state senate districts map, and a Congressional districts map; below are notes about the maps, followed by some general notes about getting hands-on with redistricting.

A potential map of Ohio state Senate districts, drawn by me

In drawing this potential map of 33 Ohio Senate districts, I prioritized proportionality and “whole” counties and cities.

I believe that partisan gerrymandering is the largest and most important issue, by far, in fair or unfair redistricting. America has substantially “sorted” parties, and polarized politics, and when a 53% vote for one party repeatedly delivers two-thirds or even three-fourths of the legislative “seats” to that party, restoring proportionality should be the primary focus.

Despite which, the spirit and letter of redistricting reforms have emphasized preserving communities “whole,” at least as much, although and perhaps because this is a distraction from the raw issue of partisan power; it also tends to be a competing priority. By my count I kept whole nearly every city—breaking up the leviathan Columbus was unavoidable, and I divided the suburban West Park neighborhood from the rest of Cleveland—and preserved all but one of the counties which mappers are discouraged from splitting betwen multiple state senate districts. This is difficult by itself, particularly in the corners of the state where most such counties are found. (I split Wood County. With a whole Toledo to the north, and a relatively “empty quarter” cornered to its west, there are limited solutions and this was mine.)

The effort to preserve cities and counties whole complicates proportionality and competitiveness, when combined with the reality of where votes are distributed around Ohio now (a reality of which I gained deeper appreciation through the process of map drawing). Large regions of the state are solidly Republican; populous urban centers are heavily Democratic. Under these conditions, a substantial number of competitive districts seems like it must depend on considerable “cracking” of urban centers and lashing the pieces to politically opposed hinterlands. I did not go whole-hog with that, and instead drew a close to proportional map, which managed to preserve lots of political subdivisions.

A few more specific notes:

I mostly followed the requirements for a certain number of whole districts in specific, larger counties. I created two whole districts in Franklin County, but a third seemed like it would unavoidably create another lopsided sink for Democratic votes; here, with the “bluish purple” district 23 combining southwest Franklin County with two counties to the west, I have in effect included one example compromise demonstrating the sacrifice of whole communities to the benefit of competitiveness.

Summit County is divided into three districts, however, this concession to proportionality includes one strong City of Akron district, and a compact northern district entirely within the Cuyahoga-Summit urbanization.

Lorain County’s reach to Sandusky does not look great on a map, however, having spent time in Sandusky and lived in Lorain County for three years, I propose that Sandusky fits with Lorain County in sociocultural terms at least as well as the patchwork parts of Lorain County fit with one another.

Finally, I paid no attention to district numbers—I was concerned with using sufficiently distinct colors that I could tell neighboring districts from another—or to state senate incumbents. Were anyone to use this map they should renumber all the districts.

I do not have an Ohio House districts map because lol. In theory, the 33 senate districts I have drawn could be subdivided into 99 House districts. In practice, the chicken-and-egg problem of creating either a Senate map which permits substantial compliance with House district rules, or a House map which permits substantial compliance with Senate district rules, is more than I have in me to resolve by the competition deadline. I should have started familiarizing myself with the redistricting tools, and the general problems of drawing Ohio legislative districts, long before the release of Census data. (But much the same goes for Ohio’s redistricting authorities and at least I have the excuse of being a spare-time amateur.)

A potential map of 15 Ohio Congressional districts, drawn by me

Much the same philosophy informed my Congressional districts map as informed my state senate districts map. I prioritized proportionality, and knocked that out of the park according to Dave’s Redistricting App. I also drew relatively compact districts, which limited the splitting of cities and counties. I would have limited this even more but for the demands of very nearly equal population.

To the best of my knowledge, I preserved cities other than Columbus, fitting even Cleveland and Cincinnati into single Congressional districts. I also kept all of Summit County together.

I regard these districts as relatively defensible (and far better than what we have lived with for a decade). Cleveland plus Lake and Ashtabula Counties is a little odd, as is southeast Cuyahoga County plus Geauga, Portage, and Trumbull Counties. But the more intuitive alternatives tend to produce deep Democratic vote-sinks, and choosing those alternatives over more proportionate districts seems like pretty clear disfavoring of a political party.

Southwest Cuyahoga County plus Lorain County—including Lakewood, where I live—would be a hotly contested district easy for neither party to win and even more difficult to hold. So, while my map gets a low score for competitiveness, I would submit that it isn’t because I set out to avoid it. I actually did the opposite, literally bringing it right to my own front door! There is a kind of theme to a Lakewood-Oberlin district, for what that’s worth.

Some general observations: I don’t think I learned major new concepts from the exercise of drawing maps, but I gained deeper appreciation for things of which I was already aware.

One of these is what a terrible, seductive power there is in modern redistricting software. Twenty years ago, would-be gerrymanderers along with any map-drawer had clunky access to city- or maybe ward-level data about voting patterns. Now, using free web software, I can draw districts with instant displays of 1) voting history for counties, cities and precincts; 2) what the addition or removal of each new subdivision adds to a district’s partisan lean.

There’s really no avoiding the consequences of this. Even if one begins in a corner, one has choices of multiple options for which direction to go, in the process of corralling enough communities and voters to meet population requirements.

In many parts of Ohio, admittedly, this doesn’t really matter. It’s a sea of red: the counties are solidly Republican, the small cities and towns and villages are solidly Republican.

At the other end of things, urban areas are even more solidly Democratic, especially where minority populations are large. Even if you keep some of these whole, you’re stuck with the reality that the lines you draw in and around mid-sized cities and big-city suburbs determine election results. Even if you try to draw toss-up districts, and leave it up to (the niche category of) “swing voters,” 1) you’re still basically gerrymandering, and 2) you’re probably screwing Democrats, because if you preserve communities and especially minority communities in intensely blue urban areas, the only chance for Democrats at a share of seats close to their share of total votes is by making up the difference in the burbs.

I wrote a blog post titled “eight months a redistricting reformer” 3.5 years ago. I’m now into my fifth year of this. Small potatoes, admittedly, compared with League of Women Voters veterans who have worked on the issue for 50 years. But (even aside from the larger picture in which liberal democracy just seems doomed in America), I conclude that the fight against gerrymandering may have been a little narrow in its perspective.

We have a political environment where national and state elections are much, much, much more existential contests between quite incompatible partisan identities, than they are about local issues and the résumés of downballot candidates. Granted, I have doubts that any set of political rules can channel that into stable, solution-oriented inclusive governing.

But even if we could go back 15 years, say, I don’t know that national redistricting rules and independent commission requirements would be entirely adequate to steer us away from this crisis. Neither geography-based representation nor winner-take-all “first-past-the-post” general elections between party nominees seem like they are convincingly adequate for the sprawling, multiethnic empire we have in America. Nor is, really, a two-party system, though as I have written we in fact have hundreds and hundreds of parties, nearly all of which use one of just two labels. We need better ways for the distribution of power to align with the people’s votes. I don’t know what this is. Proportional representation, ranked choice voting, “jungle primaries,” maybe some combination of things or even different combinations for different regions.

Right now there are just too many votes essentially thrown out.

What we have is not even close to adequate, which I knew, but the exercise of trying to draw district maps did enhance my appreciation for that.

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