More than six out of 10 Americans believe our nation is on the wrong track, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Many factors contribute to the political dysfunction that fuels these numbers. There is no comprehensive quick fix, but done correctly, redistricting reform has the greatest potential to repair what is broken in our democracy.
I am a conservative Republican, served as speaker of the Ohio House before becoming secretary of state and have been pushing to reform the way Ohio does redistricting since 2005. I believe that gerrymandering is the fractured foundation on which our legislative branch of government is built. It’s a survival skill that both parties have mastered because they know that the party that controls the line-drawing process can all but guarantee the outcome of general elections.
In 2012, President Obama won the Ohio vote by three percentage points. Meanwhile, Republicans retained control of the Ohio House 60 to 39 and control of the state Senate 23 to 10. Republicans have a 12-to-4 majority in Ohio’s delegation to the U.S. House. But very few of the congressional races were actually competitive. The closest House race was decided by four points, and the average margin of victory was 32 points.
In the private marketplace, competition results in better quality and lower prices. Yet our society allows legislative districts to be designed to avoid competition and the virtues it can produce.
No competition of ideas
Our system has ensured that the most consequential point in most state legislative and congressional elections is the primary election, where small groups of like-minded voters decide who will represent the majority of the population that official is supposed to serve. This phenomenon, of course, is not unique to Ohio, and we have seen the consequences of partisan gerrymandering play out to their dysfunctional conclusion in Washington. When elected officials from both parties know they need to please only partisan interest groups and primary voters to keep their jobs, they recognize that it is counterproductive to their reelection to work across party and ideological lines.
That isn’t how things are supposed to work. It is the competition of ideas that makes America great – yet under our winner-takes-all system, we are shielding ourselves, and our democracy, from that healthy debate.
Although in my state it was the legislative Republicans who most recently reaped the rewards, this is not to suggest that they are guilty of any wrongdoing. We followed the process exactly as designed in the Ohio Constitution. Accordingly, if government is to be more responsive, it is not the people but the Ohio Constitution that needs to change. In amending the rules, we can change the incentives and thus the actions of the people sworn to uphold them.
A better way to do it
A good plan should be simple, fair and inherently bipartisan. For Ohio, I advocate creating a seven-member bipartisan board. A supermajority, with at least one vote from a minority member, would be required to pass any map. This board would draw state legislative and congressional districts using the same rules for both. The prevailing criteria: Districts must be compact and competitive. That means all districts must have the same number of people – the one-person, one-vote principle – and counties and communities should not be split apart.
In short, no more gerrymandering.
Because the board would not be handpicking voters for certain districts, these districts would be more competitive, and representatives would be more accountable to everyone they serve. Those drawing the maps would be required to adhere to all federal requirements under voting rights acts and would perform their duties out in the open, where voters could see the process for themselves.
Some redistricting reformers believe that a better route would be to create an “independent” or “nonpartisan” board and that complex formulas should be used to make all districts competitive. Though these arguments are well intentioned, I think that when it comes to drawing political districts, there is no such thing as “independent,” and that complex formulas created at think tanks failed when presented to Ohio in 2005 and in 2012. Different solutions can work in different states.
The answer is to create a clear and simple process in which public officials, who answer to voters, are forced into a room to work out their differences. Americans want to see more of that. It could go a long way toward fixing our broken democracy and restoring our citizens’ confidence in government.