Prof. Travis McDade on Voter Redistricting

November 18, 2005

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. Citizens of Illinois should take note because we could be next.

In both Ohio and California 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 the Ohio and California plans differ greatly in both construction and intent. The Ohio plan is specifically designed to inject what proponents say is competition back into elections while the California plan concerns itself almost exclusively with how the districts of California will look on a map. Still, the ultimate purpose of both Proposition 77 in California and Issue 4 in Ohio is the same: keep politicians from drawing the political map in their favor.

Prop 77 in California calls for a panel of "Special Masters" to adopt a plan of redistricting based on population demographics of the most recent census. The Special Masters would be chosen from a pool of retired California judges ultimately winnowed down to 3 people, each party being represented by at least one of these Special Masters. This is the part of Proposition 77 that takes up the most ink.

The California plan is most concerned with the selection of these Special Masters whose role it will be to do draw the new map. 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). These Special Masters would set about redistricting the state following the "requirements" of Proposition 77; the requirements actually act more like suggestions. For instance, the plan calls for the population of the districts to "be as nearly equal as possible." And district boundaries shall conform to geographic boundaries "to the greatest extent possible." 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, separately, the legislature in their design. Finally, the plan is submitted to the voters of the state for final approval.

The Ohio plan - Issue 4 - also takes seriously the role of a neutral panel in the redistricting process but not near 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 not be charged with drawing up the map as in California.

The Ohio plan puts the most effort into a complex formula out of which a competitive Ohio map will come; the formula assigns a point value to districts based on their competitiveness (a concept that has its own formula) and balance. Once a single map is created - by any Ohioan - that is deemed the most competitive according this formula, no matter what it looks like, it is presumed to be the prevailing plan. So the criticism most often voiced by opponents of Issue 4 is that the formula will not make Ohio districts look any less ridiculous than they do now.

Because the formula is intended to write partisanship out of the redistricting process there is no provision for sending the final product to the voters for approval and access to the court system is expressly limited.

Ultimately, neither plan is perfect. But both give more input to their state's voters in the redistricting process 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 Special Masters, the people not only have input in the process of creating the map but also have the final veto, appropriately, at the ballot box.