Ohio’s clever gerrymandering – the act of drawing congressional district lines for political gain – goes beyond chasing like-minded voters.
In some cases it also involves balancing the size of the districts by carefully assigning areas with thousands of adults who have no say at the ballot box.
Ninety-one percent of Ohio’s prison inmates are in Republican districts, usually far from where they lived before being imprisoned, according to a cleveland.com analysis based on October prison counts.
Felons in Ohio cannot vote while they are serving their time, but they are important pieces of the gerrymandering puzzle. Prisoners help boost rural Ohio’s influence in Congress.
The census, taken in April every 10 years, counts where people are living at the time – whether it be in a house, a college dormitory or a prison.
Most of Ohio’s prisons are in rural areas or small towns. Most of the prisoners are from big urban areas, where the state’s population is concentrated.
In some cases these prisons balance the populations of the districts when the congressional lines are drawn. Federal law requires districts within each state to be the same size in population.
Perhaps there is no better example than a corner of Republican Rep. Jim Jordan’s 4th congressional district.
Jordan, from Urbana west of Columbus, represents a district that weaves from near the Indiana border to Elyria. The most unusual spot may be a hook-shaped area in eastern Lorain County.
Jordan’s district ranks second in Ohio for prison inmates, the cleveland.com analysis found, with 12,560 inmates as of early October at prisons in Grafton, Lima, Marion and Marysville.
But the lines for Jordan’s district are not the only ones tracking closely around prison boundaries to provide important numbers of “residents” during redistricting. There are several examples in Ohio.
The Tiberi example
One is for the 12th Congressional District being vacated Pat Tiberi, who last week announced his intention to quit Congress by the end of January. The 12th district is solidly Republican, carried not only by Tiberi but also Donald Trump in 2016.
If it weren’t for state prisons at the northern tip of the district in Mansfield – filled with non-voting prisoners – map drawers may have needed to include more voters from Democratic-leaning Columbus areas.
See the illustration below for how closely the district line, which in portions of this area is also the Mansfield city line, runs just outside two prisons adjacent to the old Ohio State Reformatory. Together, they had 5,248 state inmates at the beginning of October.
Counting the prisoners
Four of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts are held by Democrats. They are home to 4,469 prisoners, just 8.7 percent of the total.
The 12 congressional districts held by Republicans are home to 45,740 inmates, or 91.3 percent of the state total.
The district held by Rep. Steve Stivers, a Republican from Ripley, has the most prisoners with up to 15,202, depending on how prisoners are allocated from the Chillicothe Correctional Institution. Most of the prison is in Stivers’ district, a spokesman said. The rest is in the 2nd congressional district held by Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a Republican from Cincinnati.
The urban/rural split
A driving factor in the split is that there are no big prisons in Ohio’s large urban centers.
The six largest counties – Franklin, Cuyahoga, Hamilton, Summit, Montgomery and Lucas – account for 42 percent of the state’s population and are the home counties for 49 percent of the prison population.
But only about 1.5 percent of the prisoners are held in these largely Democratic counties. (Among these, only Montgomery voted Republican in the last presidential election, and just by a thin margin of less than 1 percentage point.)
The ban on felons voting in Ohio lasts only as long as they are in prison.
People convicted of misdemeanor are permitted to vote, even while they are in jail. In those cases, they must vote absentee using their home address, not the jail address, a spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State said.
In the two states where felons are permitted to vote while in prison – Vermont and Maine – they are required to vote by absentee ballot using their home addresses, according to the Prison Gerrymandering Project, which is run by the Prison Policy Initiative advocacy group.
The Prison Gerrymandering Project argues that “prison gerrymandering” affects democracy by counting people where they are incarcerated rather than where they are from, increasing the clout of rural areas at the expense of urban centers.
Two states – Maryland and New York – have passed legislation to count prison inmates in their hometowns, rather than where they are imprisoned. But they are alone in this regard, according to the group’s research.
An extreme case of the is in Illinois, a state with a dominating large urban center.
Sixty percent of the prisoners are from Cook County, which includes Chicago, but 99 percent of them are counted elsewhere for the purpose of drawing political lines, according to the group.
The shift isn’t as extreme in Ohio, but it does exist, in part because of the way political district lines have been drawn.
Carrie L. Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters in Ohio, said she would like to seek a fix to prison gerrymandering in Ohio. But, she said, that is on the backburner because the group currently is pushing a petition drive to overhaul the way Ohio’s congressional maps are drawn.