Reform Collides With Power in Remap Process
By Josh Goodman, Staff Writer
The common thinking is that last Tuesday's state victories brought Republicans a bonanza when it comes to redistricting Congress and the legislatures. In general, that's probably right. Thanks to the new legislative seats and governorships the party won, Republicans will have vastly more influence than Democrats over the redrawing of district lines. But it's a little more complicated than that. Every state is different. Consider the case of Ohio and its new secretary of state, Jon Husted.
As secretary of state, Husted will be one of the most influential Republicans in one of the most important redistricting battlegrounds. He also happens to be Ohio's most prominent opponent of using redistricting for partisan interests. "Everybody," Husted says, "gets the fact that the idea of a handful of people drawing maps in a partisan way is a flawed system."
Most Republican loyalists-and Democrats for that matter-want their state officials to use the redistricting process to gain the largest possible advantage for their own party. And most lawmakers are happy to oblige. Others, though, like Husted, have worked for years to make redistricting more fair and less partisan. They're about to face a choice between the interests of their party and the promises they've made.
On Nov. 2, Republicans picked up about 20 legislative chambers from Democrats around the country (some results are still incomplete.) And their victories came disproportionately in large and medium-sized states that have the most U.S. House seats at stake. Republicans will now be in full control of the congressional redistricting process in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Alabama, among others. They have maintained their hold on Texas and Florida.
Meanwhile, Democrats lost their biggest prize when California voters opted to put both legislative and congressional redistricting in the hands of a new independent commission. Democrats will control only Illinois and a few mid-sized states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maryland, plus a few smaller states that are less important for purposes of congressional redistricting.
All of this, however, comes with a side effect. When power switches suddenly-as it just has-lots of lawmakers who until recently were complaining bitterly about the other side's abuses, suddenly are thrust into the majority. "Whoever is not in power is all for reform," says Peg Rosenfield, of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, "and whoever is in power sees no reason." Some relish the opportunity for payback. In Tennessee, Republicans endured decades of Democratic control. "We'll be just as fair to them," Republican Representative Gerald McCormick told an audience last year, "as they've been to us."
Others, though, appear intent on sticking with their reformist impulses, even if it means not redistricting to full partisan advantage. In Indiana, for example, Republicans spent much of the last decade condemning a Democratic gerrymander that made it difficult for the GOP to win the Indiana House of Representatives. The state's Republican Secretary of State, Todd Rokita, made redistricting reform a signature issue over the last year, even creating a Web site dedicated to the topic: www.rethinkingredistricting.com . He called for lawmakers to keep districts compact, respect community lines and not make use of partisan voting data when drawing maps. Rokita's legislation didn't pass, but in a post-election press conference last week, Governor Mitch Daniels reaffirmed his support for those principles, even though Republicans had just won the House to give them complete control of the line-drawing process. "Indiana," Daniels said, "must have a fair redistricting based on geographic and community of interest lines-not politics. And I'll only sign (a bill) that meets that test."
In Ohio, all eyes are on Jon Husted. He's been working to reform his state's redistricting process since 2005, first as House Speaker and more recently as a state senator. The Dayton Daily News went so far as to say, "On redistricting…he's Eliot Ness at a mobsters' convention."
This year, the state came close to approving big changes. Husted's approach was to modify the Apportionment Board, a body that's currently responsible only for state legislative redistricting (the legislature draws congressional lines). The Board consists of the governor, state auditor, secretary of state and two legislators, with one legislator picked by each major party. Husted would have expanded the Board's membership and would have given it power over congressional redistricting too. His bill would have required at least two votes from members of both parties for a plan to pass. In this way, all redistricting plans in Ohio would have to be bipartisan. The Republican-controlled Senate approved Husted's bill, but Democrats in the House took a different approach. Despite weeks of trying, the two sides never could reach an agreement.
It now appears that Democrats made a major tactical error by not embracing Husted's plan. Last Tuesday, Republicans won every statewide office in Ohio and both houses of the legislature, putting the party in charge of both legislative and congressional redistricting. Husted hopes there's a lesson in that for Republicans. He plans to use the bully pulpit of the secretary of state's office to push hard for quick approval of the changes that failed this year. His message is that the G.O.P. can't assume that just because it has power now, it will have it in the future. Since it would require voter approval, the new system wouldn't kick in until the next round of redistricting in 2021.
Changing the process for the future would be a big step, but the more politically sensitive question is how Ohio Republicans-many of whom supported Husted's idea-will treat Democrats right now. Should he choose to do so, the new secretary of state will have a good perch from which to call out partisan gerrymandering in congressional redistricting. For example, Jennifer Brunner, the outgoing Democratic secretary of state, won national attention by holding a trial redistricting competition that highlighted the flaws of the state's 2000 congressional map. Still, Husted's most direct control will be over state legislative lines, as a member of the Apportionment Board that he sought to change.
Since Husted's plan calls for bipartisan votes on the Apportionment Board, couldn't he refuse to vote for any plan unless it has the support of the lone Democratic member? Well yes, but he and the Democratic member are only two votes. "A majority of five is three," he says. "I need to work with the other members of the majority as far as they're willing to go." Husted says he thinks that he can persuade the majority to keep districts compact and preserve communities of interest, but he expects that making districts in which both parties are competitive will be a harder sell.
That's a telling remark. In Ohio, Democrats tend to be the ones who advocate for political competitiveness as a principle of redistricting reform. The reason is that because Democratic voters are concentrated in urban areas, a map that focuses only on making districts compact and respecting community boundaries will tend to benefit Republicans, packing Democrats into fewer districts.
Under Husted's influence, Ohio may well be headed toward maps that follow many key principles of redistricting reform, but are different than the ones that Democrats would draw if they had more input. Husted's challenge will be to avoid betraying either his party or his principles. "People who are fed up with the way government works and that it's unresponsive, they get this," he says. "You're going to have to be careful about how you do this or you'll seem like more of the same."