A seven-line section tucked in a Republican Ohio Senate proposal to change the way congressional district lines are drawn could forever ensure that several counties and cities are sliced and diced into different districts.
The proposal stipulates that the total population in each of Ohio’s congressional districts must not vary by more than one person, plus or minus.
Noble idea indeed.
But a closer look reveals it is not practical — if the goals are to design districts that make geographic sense and establish rules to limit possible shenanigans by politicians out to help their party or political friends.
- Requiring precise population counts for each district opens the door to justify otherwise unnecessary splitting of counties and cities.
- Several other states don’t follow such strict population rules.
- No one really knows how many people live in each district.
The population numbers used at redistricting time are often estimates at the very local level for any one street or neighborhood.
This is confirmed by Mark Salling, a senior fellow at Cleveland State University who compiled the population data under contract for the state for the redistricting work in 1991, 2001 and 2011.
The main reason the numbers are not exact is that census blocks don’t follow precinct lines, let alone the precinct splits created by the people drawing the maps. Additionally, the census is a snapshot in time.
Lima Republican Sen. Matt Huffman, who introduced the redistricting reform plan, has said that the federal law requires that the districts be exactly the same size.
That’s why any reform proposal must allow for the splitting of counties and cities when necessary to meet the requirement, he said. Huffman is not alone in this view.
While his proposal said Ohio must follow “applicable provisions” of U.S. law, it takes the extra step of proposing to write a nearly equal population requirement into the Ohio Constitution, allowing for a variance of just one person.
However, under federal law, districts don’t have to be so close in size, said Justin Levitt, who runs the All About Redistricting website and is associate dean for research at the Loyola of Los Angeles law school.
“Congressional districts must be fairly close but not exactly equal population — the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Tennant v. Jefferson County Commission (out of West Virginia) says as much, though I’m shocked by the number of people who ignore it,” Levitt wrote an an emailed response to a question from cleveland.com.
The court deferred to other criteria used in West Virginia, such as not splitting counties. The court upheld the West Virginia congressional map, allowing a variance of 0.79 percent, or 4,871 people, from the smallest to the largest district.
A spokesman for the Ohio Senate Republican caucus said West Virginia was not a good comparison because it is a far smaller state, with just three congressional seats. Additionally, he said, the state had a long history of not splitting counties.
West Virginia is one of 11 states where the populations vary by more than two people from district to district, according to research published by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Politicians in Ohio have a long history of splitting counties, one of the reasons leading calls for reform. Currently, Cuyahoga and Summit counties are split four ways each, Lorain and Portage counties three ways each, and Medina County two ways.
This is far different than some other states.
Ed Cook, legal counsel for the Iowa Legislative Services Agency, told cleveland.com during an earlier interview that when his nonpartisan agency prepares the maps each 10 years for legislative approval, equal population falls behind other criteria established by Iowa law.
“We don’t look at incumbents. We don’t look at party registration,” Cook said. “One requirement that kind of trumps the whole processhere is that we do not split counties. That is in our constitution. … After that, there is compactness.”
Huffman’s proposal, which could lead to a public vote in the May primary, is at odds with a separate effort led by the Ohio League of Women Voters and other groups circulating petitions aimed seeking voter approval of their plan in November.
The two sides are talking. It’s possible an agreement will be worked out to settle on a single proposal.
But Ann Henkener, redistricting specialist for the league, said there are a number of points of conflict, including the equal-population clause in the Senate proposal.
“I don’t understand why Sen. Huffman does not recognize the Tennant (U.S. Supreme Court) case as being the standard for how close the population has to be. It is my understanding that it is the law,” Henkener said. “We think keeping counties together is more important than being on the dot from the census.”