District lines in Ohio foil Democrats

By Jonathan Riskind and Jim Siegel
Published December 3rd 2006 in Columbus Dispatch

A clear majority of Ohioans who voted in the Nov. 7 election preferred a Democratic congressional candidate.

So did Franklin County voters, where Democratic House candidates drew in excess of 10,000 more votes than Republicans.

The result?

While Democrats won nearly 53 percent of the congressional votes statewide, only about 39 percent of Ohioans will be represented next year by Democrats in Congress.

That�s the biggest so-called "wrong winner" disparity in the country from the 2006 midterm elections, says the nonpartisan FairVote.org.

Aided by gerrymandering � the drawing of districts to favor one party � Republicans captured 11 of the state�s 18 congressional seats, assuming that GOP Rep. Deborah Pryce, of Upper Arlington, survives a recount in the 15 th District. If she does, all three House members representing Franklin County will be Republicans.

Aside from a Democrat taking over for disgraced former GOP Rep. Bob Ney, of Heath, in the 18 th District, the floodwall that Republicans built in Ohio to protect their lopsided control of congressional districts held up strongly against the Democratic tsunami on Nov. 7. "You build the levees and you hope they withstand the highest possible storms," said Scott Borgemenke, the Ohio House chief of staff, who had a large hand in crafting the current congressional map. "But you don�t want to do so much that you overbuild the wall, because then you minimize your opportunities for seats."

Such is the reality of politics and power in Ohio after two straight rounds of congressional redistricting � after the censuses in 1990 and 2000 � controlled by the state GOP. The 2006 midterm elections underscore just how much the party in power can insulate its candidates.

"Through redistricting and winner-take-all elections, the political elite are determining how people are represented," said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote.org, which advocates the creation of multimember congressional districts where like-minded voters are able to elect winners in proportion to their voting strength. "This is a clear example of how our current system produces unfair outcomes."

Generally, the party drawing the lines gains an advantage through gerrymandering techniques known as "cracking and packing," in which voters from the other party are either spread thin, diluting their effectiveness, or packed together, giving a district an unnecessarily heavy Democratic or Republican tilt.

Redistricting cut up Franklin County in such a way that three Republicans now represent a Democratic-leaning county, Ohio�s second largest. Pryce�s district is mostly the western half of Columbus and Franklin County, but Republican linedrawers also gave her overwhelmingly Republican Union and Madison counties. That provided the margin of victory for Pryce, who lost Franklin County by more than 7,500 votes, according to Franklin County Board of Election figures.

GOP Rep. David L. Hobson, of Springfield, lost his part of Franklin County, a Democratic area in the southeastern corner of the county, by nearly 2,400 votes, although Democrat William Conner was a little-known candidate from outside Franklin County. But Hobson swept to victory with about 61 percent of the vote in a 7 th Congressional District mostly made up of GOP-dominated counties such as Fairfield, Pickaway and Greene.

Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi, of Genoa Township, lost the Franklin County part of his 12 th Congressional District, which includes much of the East Side, by 451 votes to Democrat Bob Shamansky, of Bexley. But Tiberi beat Shamansky so badly in GOP-dominated Delaware County and western Licking County that he won overall with more than 58 percent of the vote.

"If Franklin County truly had the representation it should have, we would have two Democratic representatives, not three Republicans," said William Anthony, the county�s Democratic chairman.

When he draws a map, Borgemenke said, he starts in the inner cities, ensuring he doesn�t shift black voters in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. But from that point, he gets a lot of leeway.

"Your goal in redistricting is not only to be fair and follow the law, but it�s to maximize seats," he said. "There�s no doubt there is a partisan factor in redistricting. But a lot of it is not just flat-out partisan, it�s also incumbent protection. That�s just the way it is."

An optimal district, Borgemenke said, is one that is expected to lean 53 percent in your party�s favor. But a bunch of slightly leaning GOP districts could have spelled disaster for the GOP in this anti-Republican year, and incumbents want a lot more cushion.

The process could be even more interesting in 2011, when Ohio, because of slow population growth, is expected to lose at least one and possibly two congressional seats. That would force lawmakers to redistribute about 1.3 million people into the remaining 17 or 16 districts.

Longtime Democratic consultant Dale Butland, a senior adviser to Shamansky�s campaign, said it�s possible his party might get to redraw the congressional lines more to its liking after the 2010 Census. The legislature, which remains controlled by the GOP, draws the congressional maps. But Democratic Gov.-elect Ted Strickland will have to sign the bill if he wins re-election in 2010.

But Butland said he would rather the entire process be altered to be more fair and produce more competitive districts. While the current system is "the way the game is played now, I personally believe we can do better than that," he said.

Ohio is not the only place where FairVote.org�s "wrong winner" phenomenon occurred in last month�s elections.

In Michigan, while Democratic U.S. House candidates won about 51 percent of all votes statewide, they captured just six out of 15 of the state delegation�s seats, or 40 percent, according to figures compiled by FairVote.org.

In an instance favoring Democrats, the GOP captured nearly 51 percent of the statewide congressional vote in Iowa last month, but won two out of five House seats.

There also are a few states where there is a big disparity with one party gaining a majority of the vote but holding a far greater percentage of seats than its majority would indicate, such as Democrats in Massachusetts, who won about three-quarters of the statewide congressional votes but captured all 10 House seats, Fair-Vote.org research fellow Jack Santucci notes.