Push on to make race of elections
Incumbents almost never lose in House

By Malia Rulon
Published August 16th 2005 in The Cincinnati Enquirer
WASHINGTON - Only one House incumbent from Kentucky has lost a bid for re-election in the last decade. In Ohio, a state with substantially more House members than Kentucky, the same holds true.

One reason for the lack of turnover is that congressional districts in both states are drawn up in a highly partisan process that's designed to keep incumbents safe, or at least make sure the same party continues to control the seat.

Consider the recent 2nd District special election. Although the final vote was closer than expected - Republican Jean Schmidt beat Democrat Paul Hackett with 52 percent of the vote - she benefited because the district has a much higher percentage of Republican voters. Voters in Ohio don't register by party, but the 2004 presidential election gives a hint of the district's GOP tilt: President Bush won the district with 64 percent of the vote.

Several lawmakers in Congress - and a separate coalition of public policy groups in Ohio - want to change that. They want independent commissions, instead of elected officials, to be in charge of redrawing House districts every 10 years.

If they succeed, the result could be closer elections, higher turnout, more upsets by challengers and a political system more in touch with regular Americans, supporters say.

"There are a lot of independent-minded, independent-thinking Americans who, by the way this process has evolved, are completely ignored," said Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., chief sponsor of the congressional plan. "We think that it's time for that to change."

Reform Ohio Now, a liberal-leaning coalition, submitted a petition to the Ohio Secretary of State's Office last week to get the issue added to statewide ballots this November.

"If elected officials can run virtually unopposed, they are going to be less responsive to districts and citizens," said Keary McCarthy, coalition spokesman.

The Ohio initiative, meanwhile will be considered at a public meeting of the Ohio Ballot Board on Tuesday.

The coalition needed nearly 323,000 signatures to get the issue on the ballot but turned in about 521,000 signatures, McCarthy said.

"We're very confident and excited that over half a million Ohioans support this issue," McCarthy said. "That's a good sign of things to come."

Political maneuverings

Nationally, last year's congressional elections were the least competitive in history, with far more landslides and uncontested races than nail-biters, according to a report by FairVote.

The bipartisan group based in the Washington area supports election changes that promote turnout and voter choice.

Out of 435 House races, only seven incumbents lost their seats to challengers and only 13 seats switched from one party to the other, the group found. Fewer than 5 percentage points decided just 10 elections.

In Ohio, all 18 House members were re-elected, and the average margin of victory was 39 percentage points.

In Kentucky, five incumbents coasted to re-election, while Republican Geoff Davis won a seat that had been held by Rep. Ken Lucas - but only after Lucas, a Democrat, announced he would retire, leaving the seat without an incumbent. The average margin of victory in Kentucky was 37 percentage points.

In Ohio, the last incumbent to fall was eight-term Rep. Tom Sawyer of Akron, who lost in the 2002 primary to another Democrat, Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles.

The last incumbent toppled in Kentucky was Democratic freshman Rep. Mike Ward, who lost by 1,300 votes to Rep. Anne M. Northup, R-Ky., in 1996.

Every 10 years, after the Census Bureau completes its survey of the U.S. population, House districts are redrawn to reflect changes in where people live. For years, state legislatures in Ohio and Kentucky have done the mapmaking - leaving the process open to political maneuverings designed to give one party an edge.

A handful of states - Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington - use independent commissions to draw districts. Others have laws to prevent unusually drawn districts from being adopted. In Iowa, for example, counties can't be split between two House seats.

Look like ink blot tests

But in the states where politicians draw the lines, the districts often end up looking like ink blot tests - with borders that snake along highways and zigzag to grab chunks of different counties to help incumbents keep their voters together.

With computer programs that analyze voting patterns and demographic data, mapmakers design districts almost guaranteed to elect members of a particular party.

In the process, cities like Cincinnati end up getting split down the middle, so neighbors who share the same local problems and concerns can wind up being represented by different lawmakers: Schmidt of Loveland and Rep. Steve Chabot, a Westwood Republican.

Chabot defended the way the district lines are drawn in the Cincinnati area.

"It happens to be two Republicans now, but oftentimes in the past it has been a Republican and a Democrat," Chabot said. "I think that gives the city more clout than it otherwise would have."