Drawing Districts


In a series of cases decided under the Fourteenth Amendment in the 1960s, the United States Supreme Court held that states must allocate voting power on the basis of population. State House and Senate districts need to contain as nearly equal population as is practicable. Some variation is allowable in order to assure that districts are compact and contiguous, keep political subdivisions intact and comply with the Voters Rights Act.

Congressional Seats

The authority to reapportion Congressional seats is found in Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Every 10 years (in years ending with zero) the government takes a census. Federal House seats are then reallocated or reapportioned based on that population count. Courts have found that Congressional districts must be drawn with virtually no deviation from the number of people in the district.

Since the number of federal House seats is fixed, and each Representative is to represent an approximately equal number of people, states that have disproportionately gained or lost population will gain or lose a House seat. This assures “one person, one vote.”

The Ohio constitution calls for the process to be conducted by agreement of the Ohio House and Senate, with the Governor having veto power.

Ohio’s current congressional districts.

Ohio House and Senate

At the same time that federal House seats are reallocated, the Ohio House and Senate district boundaries are redrawn for the same purpose: to assure that each district is composed of an equal number of people.

Lines are drawn by the Ohio Apportionment Board, which consists of the Governor, Auditor, Secretary of State, and one Republican and one Democrat. Under the current Ohio constitution (Article 11), there are 99 House districts and 3 House districts in each Senate district.

  • Each district shall be substantially the same in population (95% to 105%), except where reasonable effort is made not to divide a county.
  • Districts are to be compact, contiguous, bounded by a single nonintersecting continuous line, and so drawn to delineate an area containing one or more whole counties (subject to equal population).
  • Division will be made giving preference in the order named to: counties, townships, municipalities and city wards.

Ohio has a specific provision that allows for reapportionment only after the census.

Ohio’s current state Senate districts.

Ohio’s current state House districts.

Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed by Congress in 1965 to stop voting discrimination based on race, and to require states, counties, cities and other jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination or depressed minority political participation to provide fair treatment to racial minorities.

The Act was amended in 1982 to require that certain jurisdictions take steps to give minority voters an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. Critics would say that gerrymandering has evolved from a discriminatory tactic used to prevent African-Americans from attaining public office to an insurance policy guaranteeing blacks and Latinos certain minority-controlled districts around the country.

The VRA seems to have made a difference. Minorities are underrepresented in federal government. Although African-Americans compose more than 12% of the U.S. population, only 42 black Representatives serve in the U.S. House, and only one black Senator is elected (less than 8% representation). A similar lack of representation exists, in most cases, at the state and local level. Still, the number of black elected officials has increased from just 300 nationwide in 1964 to more than 9,100 today, and nearly 5,000 Latinos hold public office.

The Act has been criticized because of the requirement to draw “majority-minority” districts, also referred to as “max-black” districts. The provision has been criticized by both sides of the political spectrum: by conservatives as undemocratic – “the new gerrymandering” – and by progressives for its unintended consequence of “herd[ing] minorities into a few areas while leaving adjacent districts overwhelmingly white,” thus granting a handful of minority candidates public office without giving the minority community real power.

Since black voters in Ohio have had a history of voting Democratic, the majority Republican Apportionment Board in 1991 had a natural interest in packing them into as few districts as possible. That interest coincided with the interest of the Ohio Branch of the NAACP, who wanted to elect as many black legislators as possible. The two worked together to create a plan that included five black-majority districts.

Democratic plaintiffs attacked the plan, alleging that it diluted the voting strength of black voters because blacks had historically often supported the same candidates as whites – that is, Democrats. Black and white Democrats often lived in the same areas, so that creating black-majority House districts also created super-majority Democratic districts, thus reducing the number of seats Democrats were likely to win statewide. This arrangement may have helped black candidates, but plaintiffs alleged that it hurt black voters by diluting their influence in other districts. Voinovich v. Quilter, 507 U.S. 146 (1993). The Court supported the 1991 plan.

The Impact of Gerrymandering

Does gerrymandering really make a difference? Consider this example:

Let’s assume there is an area with 125 voters, 60 Democrats and 65 Republicans, who need to elect 5 representatives. The most representative outcome would be to elect 3 Republican and 2 Democrats. However, look what can be done by carefully drawing district boundaries:

Try to create your own redistricting scenario, click here.

Ohio is not unlike the hypothetical example above. It is a state very evenly divided between voters affiliated with both major parties. Whoever draws the lines can have a substantial impact on the political make-up of Ohio’s Congressional delegation and its General Assembly.

Montgomery County

An actual example of the impact of gerrymandering can be seen in Montgomery County. Prior to 1990, the county’s map did not look like a doughnut as it does now. In the Dayton area, one Senate seat was in the north and one was in the south; each area contained parts of the city and the inner suburbs.

The Dayton Daily News “No Voices, No Choices” article explains that the Republican lock on the seat in the south was not secure. When the moderate Republican was getting ready to retire, the Republican Party had to make sure to hold on to that seat. In order to do that, they needed a district with more Republicans. If saving that seat meant drawing a doughnut around Dayton – then that’s what had to happen.