The Issue 4 Redistricting Plan Explained (in a way)

The potential adoption of an open plan for redistricting Ohio’s political map has been received with cautious optimism. Reform of the current system, where the party in power tends to stay in power, has a lot of support. But the suggested change by Reform Ohio Now is based on a seemingly complicated formula that tends to be laid out in esoteric terms (“…keeping the index for one of the partisan affiliations always as the minuend and the index for the other partisan affiliation always the subtrahend from district to district throughout the redistricting plan…”).

Both side have tried to steer clear of the actual formula when presenting their arguments to Ohio voters. RON supporters simply say that passage of Issue 4 will take redistricting out of the hands of partisan politicians and make elections more competitive. Opponents of the issue claim that letting an unelected committee decide Ohio districts will make Ohio districts look like they were formed, well, by a committee. Ohio First, the major RON opponent, has even come up with an example of a high-scoring redistricted Ohio map.

This article attempts what neither side seems willing to do: explain the formula in terms that are relatively easy to understand.

If Issue 4 were to pass, the way Ohio is apportioned for representation’s sake would be based largely on “competitiveness,” according to the formula. Any person willing to abide by the rules of the formula who wants to take a crack at redistricting Ohio has that chance if intent to do so is declared by May 15th of the year in which the plan is to be adopted. Using information available at the redistricting commission’s website, final plans must be submitted by July 1st.

The formula divides Ohio districts – with separate maps for General Assembly and Congress – into three categories: balanced competitive, unbalanced competitive and unbalanced uncompetitive.

A competitive district is simply a district where, in averaging the past three elections, one major party does not dominate the other major party by more than five percentage points. An uncompetitive district is one where a party dominates the other by more than fifteen percentage points. A district that falls between those two percentages is neither competitive nor uncompetitive. For the purpose of determining ‘competitiveness’ within a district, the plan looks to the district’s average in the past three non-judicial statewide elections; this would include how the district voted for statewide elections (e.g., President, Senator, Governor) but not local or General Assembly.

In order to have a balanced competitive district, a competitive district of one major party must be matched with a competitive district of the other major party. So, for example, a district where Republicans have prevailed in the past three non-judicial statewide elections by an average margin of 3% could be matched with a district where Democrats have won by an average margin 4%. Those districts – both competitive – would then be balanced.

These types of districts are the most valuable in the proposed redistricting formula. In order to encourage more of the these types of districts, in fact, the formula gives them twice the weight it gives other districts; so in the final total of a successfully redistricted Ohio, the number of balanced competitive districts will be doubled. Unbalanced competitive districts – still important since they are competitive but less so since they are not balanced – are simply counted once. That is, competitive districts favoring one party that have no corresponding competitive district favoring the other party are half as valuable in the formula as those that are balanced.

Subtracted from this total will be double the number of unbalanced uncompetitive districts. Uncompetitive districts are ones that, over the same three-election span, have yielded wins for one party or the other by an average of 15% or more. For these districts to be unbalanced, of course, they need to be without a similar opposite party uncompetitive district. So, for instance, if a redistricted map contains six districts where Republicans have won by an average of more than 15% over the past three years and only two districts where Democrats have won by an average of more than 15% over the past three years, there will be four unbalanced uncompetitive districts. In the final formula that would count for minus 8 points.

The sum total of these three types – balanced competitive, unbalanced competitive and unbalanced uncompetitive – comprises the competitiveness number. The plan with the highest such number becomes the apparent prevailing plan, subject to confirmation of the attentiveness to actual census numbers and geographical considerations. With the winning plan in hand the commission can then either adopt the plan as is or change it, slightly, in order to preserve “communities of interest” based on geography, economics or race. If the commission changes that plan it cannot do so in a way that would lower the competitiveness number more than two points in the case of the congressional plan and four points in the case of the General Assembly.

If two or more submitted plans tie for the highest competitiveness number, the commission will adopt the plan with the fewest county fragments, municipal fragments and township fragments, in that order. A county fragment, for instance, occurs when one or more parts of the county is apportioned in different districts.

That, in as simple a way as could be managed, is the way the formula works.