What do you get when you divorce political power from political legitimacy?
When citizens get angry enough about that separation to challenge it, you get the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the Arab Spring.
But when people don’t seem to know or care what politicians have taken from them, you get the Ohio General Assembly and our state’s congressional delegation.
Neither the legislature nor the U.S. House delegation represents all Ohioans equally. That’s not a matter of political opinion — it’s a statistical fact. And only Ohioans ourselves, not our so-called elected representatives, will change that, if we want to.
In last year’s general election, according to a new report by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Ohio, Republican candidates got 51 percent of Ohioans’ votes in U.S. House races. Yet the GOP took 75 percent of the state’s House seats — 12 out of 16.
In contests for the Ohio House, Democratic candidates got the majority of votes — 51 percent. Yet Republicans were elected to 61 percent of the 99 House seats.
In state Senate races, Ohioans gave 68 percent of their votes to GOP candidates (six Republicans did not have Democratic opponents). But Republicans took 83 percent of the seats up for election last year — 15 out of 18.
Do you see a pattern here?
These grotesque disparities didn’t occur by accident. Rather, they are the products of the time-tested scam of gerrymandering: the ability of the party in power — in Ohio’s case, the GOP — to draw congressional and legislative districts in a way that maximizes its political advantage instead of providing fair, effective, and accountable representation.
“Ohio’s plans are as nasty as you get,” Daniel Tokaji, an election law expert at Ohio State University’s law school, told me. “They’re a prime example of politics at its most base. You just can’t defend the fairness of Ohio’s plans without breaking into a giggle.”
The sophistication of gerrymandering schemes has evolved along with computer technology, which now allows districts to be divided by blocks, and to have as many voters of one party or another packed into them as possible. House Speaker John Boehner took a personal — and direct — interest in rigging Ohio’s congressional delegation to favor his party; he ran unopposed last year.
When gerrymandering discourages real and fair competition between the parties in the general election, the election that counts is the partisan primary. Extremist primary candidates on the left and right push both parties to the poles, rather than toward the middle. Gerrymandering, among other things, has magnified state lawmakers’ fear of Tea Party challenges.
That’s a big part of the reason that the Republican-dominated General Assembly refused to expand Ohio’s Medicaid program, even when polls showed that Ohioans favored expansion and GOP Gov. John Kasich pleaded for it. Only an end-run around the legislature allowed the popular will to be expressed, at least on this issue and at least for now.
But gerrymandering isn’t limited to Ohio; it’s a national disgrace. It’s largely why a handful of Tea Party anarchists in the House Republican caucus could shut down the federal government last month and propel the nation toward default on its debts, before a last-minute resolution prevented that.
Republicans don’t have a monopoly on gerrymandering, of course. When blue-state Democrats have the same opportunity to grab as much of the pie as they can, they do so with gusto. That’s just as contemptible as when Republicans do it. And that’s why neither party should be allowed to control redistricting, anywhere.
Gerrymandering might seem to violate the one-person-one-vote principle established by the U.S. Supreme Court. But Mr. Tokaji notes that the current high court has been reluctant to engage the issue. As standard political wisdom has it, the real scandal isn’t what’s illegal — it’s what’s legal.
Well before last year’s elections, political analysts predicted the outcomes of Ohio’s congressional and legislative contests, based solely on the partisan composition of districts as the GOP-controlled legislature and state Apportionment Board drew them in 2011.
The analysts correctly called all of the U.S. House and state Senate races, and all but two of the state House races. Voters in the old Soviet Union had about as meaningful a choice at the polls.
So it isn’t surprising that so many GOP lawmakers in Washington and Columbus take orders from the Tea Party — as on Medicaid expansion and the government shutdown — instead of risking a primary challenge, even if they defy the preferences of most of their constituents when they do that. And it’s why bipartisan compromise in Washington is virtually extinct.
How can Ohioans reverse these pernicious trends? The first step is to replace extreme gerrymandering with a neutral process of creating districts that are geographically compact, politically competitive, respectful of local communities of interest, and representative of voters’ preferences.
Don’t expect state lawmakers and other elected officials to work together on a bipartisan solution. The Republicans who worked so hard to give themselves an unfair electoral advantage aren’t going to surrender it voluntarily, and Democrats lack the numbers to force them to do so.
Last year, the League of Women Voters and other good-government groups sponsored a decent, if imperfect, ballot proposal that would have taken the reapportionment process away from the parties and given it to an independent, nonpartisan citizens’ commission. It deserved approval.
But state GOP officials smeared the plan. Various interest groups invented petty, self-serving reasons to oppose it. Amid heated campaigns in Ohio for president and U.S. Senate, advocates of the complicated proposal had trouble communicating their message to voters.
And on Election Day, Ohio voters trashed it. A year later, we’re seeing the results.
A commission that is supposed to be looking at ways to update the state constitution could, and should, place redistricting on its agenda. But commission members don’t appear to be doing much of anything these days.
Professor Tokaji notes that some of the business lobbies that abetted Ohio’s gerrymandering plans and opposed last year’s ballot proposal are feeling buyer’s remorse these days. They’re pressuring Republican leaders to resist some of the Tea Party’s economy-threatening excesses.
“Smart Republicans are coming to realize that the way the districts are drawn is hurting the party, and their own economic interests,” he says. “The general perception is that the extremists have taken over. That’s far more harmful to the brand of the party than helpful.”
The best hope remains giving voters another crack at a constitutional amendment that would end gerrymandering, as soon as possible. This time, we can’t swing and miss.
Neither Ohio’s legislature nor its congressional delegation is a truly representative body, because neither is designed to be. As such, neither has genuine political legitimacy behind the votes it casts and the actions it takes. That’s a danger to democracy. It has to change.
Ohio’s political process has been stolen from its people. Isn’t it time we took it back?
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dkushma1