The Vagaries of Redistricting
By Lucas Botello
Every ten years, each state is required to redraw the boundaries of its Congressional districts as a means of ensuring that representation appropriately reflects population. Each district must be home to approximately the same number of citizens; but where the actual district lines fall is, in the vast majority of states, left for state legislatures to decide. After the nation’s most recent census in 2010, state legislatures across the country again had the opportunity to redraw the boundaries between their Congressional districts. Today, these redistricting decisions are producing anomalies rarely seen in Congressional races.
State legislatures are comprised of partisan elected leaders who therefore want to draw district lines in a way that enables their party to be more likely to win. To achieve this, gaming often occurs; the state is sliced up in such a way that like-minded voters are concentrated into enough districts, increasing the chances that candidates from their preferred party will be elected. Conversely, voters from one political party will be divided into many districts that have larger numbers of voters from the other party in other to dilute their voting power. In political lexicon, this process is known as gerrymandering.
This process often favors Congressional incumbents even if their state counterparts are from the opposing party. If Republicans dominate a state legislature, for example, they will often (but not always) want to include as many Democratic voters in an incumbent Democrat’s district, thereby make the surrounding Republican districts even safer for Republican incumbents.
This is the way the process currently works in Ohio. Ohio’s state legislature is controlled by Republicans who worked closely with aides of Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner (OH-8). A recent report titled the “Ohio Redistricting Transparency Report: The Elephant in the Room” exposed the backroom dealing involved in the redistricting process. The report details the weekly meetings held among mapmakers and representatives of the GOP-controlled State Apportionment Board, which draws the legislative lines. As expected, the study concludes, this process produced a situation favorable to Republicans. This phenomenon is not limited to Republicans, as Democrats gerrymandered Illinois in a similar way.
Another complicating factor is that slow population growth in a state might result in a state losing seats in Congress, or vice versa. Of course, when a state loses seats, not all the incumbent Congressional Members can continue to represent that state. This was the case in both Ohio and Iowa. After the 2000 Census Ohio had eighteen seats. Now, Ohio has lost two of seats to redistricting, leaving it with sixteen seats. Before the last redistricting Iowa had five Congressional districts. Now the state has only four. This leaves incumbents playing musical chairs; when the music stops and the maps are released, there will be two incumbents running for the same seat.
One of those seats being fought for is Ohio’s 16th district (OH-16), where the race between incumbent Republican Congressman Jim Renacci and incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Betty Sutton is unfolding. Sutton’s district was eliminated by the Republican state legislature, so she decided to challenge freshman Mr. Renacci in the newly created 16th–a district. This is the same district President Obama would have won with 47 percent of the vote in 2008. Mr. Renacci has represented more citizens within the district, but the race is considered a toss-up. The fact that this is an unusual match-up – between two sitting incumbents – cannot be overstated.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved $2.2 million in airtime in the Cleveland media market, while the National Republican Congressional Committee has reserved $1.5 million in airtime. Much of this Congressional election will depend on how well President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney perform in the district. Both campaigns will be spending even larger amounts in Ohio, a key swing state.
Many Ohioans, and especially Ohio Democrats, are upset with the outcome of the Republican redistricting and have put a proposition on the November ballot which, if approved by Ohio voters, would create an independent commission responsible for drawing the Congressional district lines. This commission would create districts that were more competitive, which theoretically would create more responsive elected officials and more moderate candidates.
Unlike Ohio, Iowa has already undergone reforms to fight the polarizing effects of redistricting by creating a special five-member Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission. The commission is responsible for developing a new redistricting map that the state legislature and the governor must approve by an up-or-down vote without giving the legislature or the governor an opportunity to amend it. The process is designed to prevent political state actors from creating seats favorable to incumbents. As a result, there is a near-even mix of registered Democrats and registered Republicans in each district, and all four of Iowa’s seats are viewed as contested.
As in the Ohio 16th district, the loss of one seat in Iowa has forced two incumbents to run against each other. Republican Tom Latham and Democrat Leondard Boswell are competing for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District located in the Western and more conservative part of the state. Mr. Latham is favored to win since the newly redrawn district has 15,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, and the district would have marginally voted for Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain in 2008. Additionally, Mr. Latham has had a fundraising lead boosted by the support of his close friend and political ally Mr. Boehner. However, Democrats have not given up on Mr. Boswell, who has received fundraising support from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA-8). Political commentators believe that this race, like the Renacci-Sutton race in the OH-16, will largely hinge on how well Presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama perform in the district. And, since Iowa is a swing state like Ohio, both Presidential campaigns are pouring in lots of money to appeal to voters.
Incumbent-on-incumbent races are rare, with spikes following population movements measured by our nation’s decennial census. What is particularly unique about this season, however, is the presence of a Presidential election. As a political phenomenon, redistricting only collides with a Presidential election every 20 years. Ohio’s 16th district and Iowa’s 3rd district, two swing districts in two swing states, will be among the most heavily targeted by both presidential campaigns. The only thing missing is an Election Day solar eclipse.