Author’s note: This story has been updated to include news that both legislative chambers approved the map.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio’s 9th Congressional District is considered a textbook case of gerrymandering, the process in which a state’s controlling political party draws legislative districts to keep their advantage.
The “snake on the lake,” as District 9 is derided, spans a razor-thin slice of the Lake Erie shoreline from Cleveland’s western edge all the way to Michigan. At multiple points, it’s less than a mile wide, and advocates argue it’s not compact as required by the Ohio Constitution.
The snake is gone in Senate Bill 258, Ohio Republicans’ redistricting proposal sent to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk after passing the state Senate Tuesday and House Thursday. But even with districts that are more compact than previous, the new map sets up Republicans for a 12-3 advantage, and Democratic lawmakers insist the classic signs of gerrymandering statewide.
Packing and cracking in Franklin County
Gerrymandering has two main tactics: packing and cracking. “Packing” is when alike voters are kept together to concentrate their power in a small number of districts and minimize it statewide. In OH-9, for example, Democratic voters from Toledo to west of Cleveland were packed together, forming a district that elected a Democrat by 26 points last year.
“Cracking” is the opposite but achieves the same goal. Alike voters in one place are split up among multiple districts to dilute their influence.
The new proposed boundaries for Ohio’s 3rd District, a Democratic stronghold centered in Columbus, are a prime example of gerrymandering, says state Sen. Tina Maharath (D-Canal Winchester), because it “dilutes the voting power of minorities by cracking and packing communities of color.”
“Franklin County’s black communities are packed into just one district, while its Latinos and the AAPI communities are split into different ones,” she said Tuesday in Senate floor debate.
On her first point, the new OH-3 would include 252,218 Black residents, according to Dave’s Redistricting App, a nonpartisan website that analyzes congressional maps. And except for a few thousand voters, all of OH-3 is in Franklin County.
The 2020 U.S. census recorded 335,085 Black residents in the county, which means OH-3 contains roughly 75% of Franklin County’s Black population, per NBC4’s calculations. But it contains a smaller share of the county’s white residents, about 53%.
As for the splitting of Hispanic and Asian residents, the new 3rd District contains roughly 60% and 58%, respectively, of their county populations.
The distribution of Asian residents is particularly visual, since much of the population is concentrated northwest of Columbus in cities like Dublin. OH-3 avoids that suburb, however, assigning Dublin and other significantly Asian voting precincts in Franklin County to OH-15.
State Sen. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon), the bill’s sponsor, told a House committee Wednesday that racial data was not considered in drawing the boundaries. The primary driver, he said, was balancing the population of all districts “without unduly splitting too many communities.”
With the packing of Black residents that Maharath alleges, the new OH-3 would give Democrats a 39-point advantage, according to Dave’s Redistricting. Democratic U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty won the district last year by just under 42 points.
“Ohioans are demanding fair representation in Congress,” Maharath said. “But we’re not providing them that fair representation with these maps.”
Cracking minority communities in Hamilton County
In southwestern Ohio, the new District 8 dips into multiple majority-minority communities just north of Cincinnati in Hamilton County, and it stretches district boundaries north to rural Darke County. That’s a 2-hour drive.
“I don’t even know where Darke County is,” said state Sen. Cecil Thomas (D-Cincinnati) in an impassioned floor speech Tuesday.
Thomas, one of four Black state senators in Ohio, argued the map gerrymanders his constituents.
“Y’all know about the snake on the lake. Come on. This is no different,” he said. “The harm done to minority communities in the county — in my county — is significant. The line between District 1 and District 8 cuts right through the middle of the black population.”
A parallel consequence of district lines dividing Hamilton County’s majority-Black precincts, coupled with the fact some Democrats on the county’s east side are assigned to West Virginia-adjacent District 2, is an apparent dilution of Democratic influence.
Hamilton County voted for Democrat Joe Biden by 16 points in the last presidential election, but Senate Republicans’ map splits the county among three congressional districts with GOP advantages of roughly three points (OH-1), 25 points (OH-8) and 34 points (OH-2).
“The people came and they spoke … and said, ‘Please, give us fair districts,'” Thomas told his colleagues. “But all I’m hearing here today is exactly what we already have. And you all know it.”
The Ohio Constitution allows mapmakers to split up to 18 counties once and five counties twice — the latter being the case in Hamilton County. McColley argued Tuesday his bill “splits the least counties out of any map that’s been introduced in the Ohio General Assembly,” noting that it divides just 10 counties once and two counties twice.
It also splits just two of Ohio’s 100 most populous cities, McColley added, with the exception of Columbus (because it’s more populous than a district is allowed) and cities that cross a county border.
Dave’s Redistricting rates the map a 51/100 for its county splitting (higher is better), which is far better than the 4/100 that Ohio’s current map scored. The maps that House and Senate Democrats have proposed scored higher, though, at 64/100 and 66/100, respectively.
Questions of compactness
State Sen. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) currently lives in Ohio’s 9th District — the snake. Under Senate Republicans’ proposed new map, she would move to a more compact district mostly contained to Cleveland and its suburbs.
But people who live as few as 15 minutes away from her would move to the newly drawn District 5, which stretches from Lorain County all the way to the Indiana border — more than half the width of the state.
Lorain County precincts that vote blue and currently help the oversized Democratic advantage in OH-9 would be put with Republican strongholds as far as Findlay, Van Wert and Celina, forming a district with an uncompetitive 22-point GOP advantage.
“Metro Cleveland is vastly different from the rural counties and communities of western Ohio,” Antonio said on the floor Tuesday, arguing each region’s cultural, economic and geographic interests are “enormously different.”
Among the Ohio Constitution’s requirements is legislative maps must be compact — that they avoid weird shapes and look more like the new OH-3 than the old OH-9.
“Senate Bill 258 does not in good faith achieve this criteria,” Antonio said.
Dave’s Redistricting rates the map’s compactness at 46/100. Like with county splitting, that’s worse than Ohio House and Senate Democrats’ proposed maps (61 and 56, respectively). But it’s an improvement from the state’s current map, which scored a 23/100.
To Antonio’s concerns, McColley said that sometimes large counties like Lorain need to be split so they can help rural districts maintain tight boundaries.
“If we don’t put some of those communities and some of those counties with counties of large population, those districts are going to be massive,” he argued.
The nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project gives the map a ‘C‘ grade for its compactness and county splitting, meaning it “could be better, but also could be worse.” The map gets an overall ‘F,’ however, for its “significant Republican advantage.”
Where the map goes next
SB 258 passed both the Senate and House without support from Democrats. Four Republican House members, however, voted ‘no’: state Reps. Gary Click (R-Vickery), Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville), Kyle Koehler (R-Springfield) and Nino Vitale (R-Urbana).
Koehler, for example, did not support the map because it took Springfield out of Clark County, something that Ohio’s current map does not do.
I hear constituents views on both sides of so many issues. I can’t think of a time I have ever had all my constituents agree on one issue. They did not want Springfield carved out of Clark County. I voted “no” splitting our county. pic.twitter.com/DxHYEBUNnr— Rep. Kyle Koehler (@repkoehler) November 18, 2021
The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to sign or veto. New districts must be approved by Nov. 30. Because it passed the Senate without Democratic votes, the new map would be law for four years instead of 10.