The California and Ohio Redistricting Plans Compared

Voters in two bellwether states - Ohio and California - will vote this November on significant amendments to the way their state is divided up for the sake of elections. In each state the amendment in question claims to put some fundamental fairness back into elections by taking the redistricting power out of the hands of partisan politicians. And in each state the party in power - Republicans in Ohio, Democrats in California - is the most vocal opponent. But there the similarities end. The Ohio and California plans differ greatly in their construction and in the impact their passage might have on voters.

One year after California saw none of the 153 seats up for election switch party hands the voters of that state have to decide whether to try something new. The purpose of Proposition 77 (called "The Voter Empowerment Act") is similar to that of Issue 4 in Ohio : keep politicians from drawing the political map in their favor. But the process by which such change would take place is quite different.

Proposition 77 calls for the California legislature to appoint a panel of "Special Masters" to adopt a plan of redistricting based on population demographics of the most recent census - usually this would take place every ten years but the first such process would take place immediately after passage. The Special Masters would be chosen from a pool of 24 retired California (state or federal) judges none of whom can have held elected partisan office or pursue any such office for a period of five years. Both major parties would have equal representation in the pool of judges. That pool of judges would be further winnowed to 12 and then to 8 in this way: the minority and majority leader in each house of the legislature would select three names apiece for inclusion in the final pool; each of those four legislators would then get to excise one judge apiece from the pool. Of these remaining 8, lots would be chosen for the final 3 Special Masters, one of whom would have to be a selection of a different major party than the other two.

This is the part of Proposition 77 that takes up the most ink. In the California plan it is the selection of these Special Masters whose role it will be to do the redistricting that is of most concern. It is also this aspect of the plan that gets the most criticism. Opponents routinely claim that their state will be redistricted by unelected old white men (the demographic into which retired judges most often fall).

The Ohio plan - Issue 4 - also takes seriously the role of neutral panel in the redistricting process but not nearly to this extent. That is largely because in the Ohio plan the emphasis is placed on the process by which the new, most competitive map will be drawn, not on the neutral arbiters who will judge the map. (For an explanation of the Issue 4 formula, see here.) So the criticism most often voiced by opponents of Issue 4 is that the complicated formula will not make Ohio districts look any less ridiculous than they do now.

In Ohio the neutral body is an extension of the plan designed to judge the integrity of the process. In California it is the development of the neutral body that is the process. That is, the Ohio plan puts the most effort into the formula out of which a competitive Ohio map will come; once a map is created that is deemed the most competitive according to the formula, it is presumed to be the prevailing plan. California puts the most emphasis on the neutrality of the body that will develop such a map; once these Special Masters are appointed, they go about the process of creating the redistricted map.

Aside from this difference in emphasis on the role of the neutral committees in each plan, the California and Ohio plans differ fundamentally in what they view as their ideal outcome. In Ohio the formula enshrined in Issue 4 is designed to bring competition the state. While the Issue 4 plan is concerned with the overall appearance and natural look of Ohio's districts it is ultimately the level of competition introduced to the state's elections that are most important. In California the opposite is true.

The map of the newly redistricted California would take competition into consideration far less than the Ohio plan. Because of that there is no formula in the plan similar to the one in Issue 4. All of the "requirements" for the Special Masters in redistricting California under Proposition 77 are more like suggestions that ultimately leave a lot of room for interpretation. For instance, the plan calls for the population of the districts to "be as nearly equal as possible." And "district boundaries shall conform to the geographic boundaries of a county, city or city and county to the greatest extent possible." The ultimate aim of California plan seems to be to keep natural boundaries, like cities, towns and counties, together in the same district so that the map looks right. Proponents of the plan want the terrain of the state divided in a way that, if not exactly competitive, looks more competitive than the thin, bent and spidery districts of a clearly gerrymandered map.

Because of these less-precise instructions to the Special Masters, the California plan is rich in checks and balances. Not only is the process of appointing the Special Masters designed to avoid giving a single party the power over redistricting but those Special Masters are then subject to the scrutiny of both the public and the legislature in their design of the system. The Special Masters are required to have public meetings and accept comments from any Californian. After making a tentative plan, the map of the redistricted California is to be submitted to the legislature for further comments and suggested changes, each of which must be commented on, in writing, by the Special Masters. Finally, the plan is submitted to the voters of the state for final approval.

Issue 4, on the other hand, is heavily reliant on the up front work of individual Ohioans. Redistricting in Ohio, should the issue pass, would be largely left up any individual or organization that creates a legitimately "competitive" map, based on a formula enshrined in the language of the issue. The role of the neutral commission in this system is largely that of a referee: the language of the amendment spells out specific requirements for the commission to follow and restricts their actions to specific tasks. Once a plan is decided on there is no final referendum by the people; even access to judicial remedies is limited.

Opponents of the plans in both states say that redistricting should not be left up to an unelected body. While it is technically true that the plans in both states are overseen by unelected commissions, under both plans the state voters still have a voice (and, in many ways, a more direct voice than they have now). In Ohio any person who is interested in submitting a plan may do so; by law the map that is most competitive must be accepted by the commission. In California, while the map is drawn by the neutral Special Masters, the people not only have input in the process of creating the map but also have the final veto at the ballot box.