What Ohio’s Senate map says about the GOP's redistricting strategy

Early next month, new state legislative districts go before the Ohio Supreme Court. The congressional map approved last week is on its way to court, too. In both cases, Ohio Republicans controlled the process throughout, and approved maps that garnered no support from the minority party — directly at odds with the stated intent of the constitutional amendments overwhelmingly approved by voters. These new lines are transparently partisan, but they're built to be right at the bleeding edge of defensible. The new Senate plan offers a glimpse at state leaders' strategy.

Packing and cracking in Cincinnati and Cleveland

Three different state senators will represent portions of Hamilton County. Cuyahoga will get four. They're the second and third most populous counties in the state, so splitting the counties was likely unavoidable. But political scientist David Niven takes issue with how those splits were made.

“Gerrymandering isn't just about drawing a bunch of districts for your party to win. It's also about drawing districts for the other party that they can't lose," Niven explained. “You maximize the number of their voters who are bunched together, so they harm the dominant party in as few districts as possible."

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This practice, known colloquially as packing and cracking, influences outcomes by changing what researchers call the efficiency gap. Efficiency has to do with the relative weight, or power, of a given vote. Casting a ballot in one party's stronghold is less efficient, for instance, than casting it in a toss-up race. When the margins are tighter, a single vote means more.

According to analysis from PlanScore, the Senate map as a whole gives Republicans a nine-point edge. Dave's Redistricting puts the efficiency gap at 11 points.

Niven says the areas around Cleveland and Cincinnati are poster children for this approach. He contrasts the 23rd District in Cleveland where Democrats can expect about 80% of the vote, with the neighboring 27th District which gives Republicans a slight edge.

“It's almost perfectly efficient, it's almost the ideal district from a Republican perspective, just enough Republican votes that they win — no wasted votes," Niven said. “You know, if you put any of those Democrats from 23 into 27, and they border each other, you could do this, you would have two Democratic districts."

In Cincinnati, Niven says Republican drafters took their tinkering with efficiency a step further. Hamilton County skews Democratic. In 2020, voters there gave Joe Biden 56% of the vote — that's 15 points more than Donald Trump's share. But the current map is likely to produce two Republican state senators and just one Democrat representing Hamilton County because of major differences in population.

“That's the special sauce, it's not only the drawing of the lines, but it's taking liberties with the size of districts," Niven said. “They cram quite a few more voters into the Democratic district than into the Republican districts, because if you if you apportion them evenly it would be harder to make two Republican districts."

We're not just talking about 100 people here, 100 people there — we're talking about a 29,000 or so difference. And you know, obviously that's a strategic choice. It has absolutely nothing to do with trying to achieve fair representation.

– Political Scientist David Niven

This stands in stark contrast to the process for the congressional map.

Republican lawmakers there insisted on as little population deviation as possible. Every district in the congressional map is equivalent, plus or minus one person. Sponsor Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, used an equal population argument to justify splitting Summit County. And Republicans used population as cudgel as well. Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, criticized the Democratic proposal noting one district was 748 voters above the ideal population while another was 491 voters below.

Those considerations went out the window for the Ohio Senate map.

“The Democratic district has 371,000 people. One of the Republican districts has 342,000 people," Niven said of the Hamilton County Senate districts. “We're not just talking about 100 people here, 100 people there — we're talking about a 29,000 or so difference. And you know, obviously that's a strategic choice. It has absolutely nothing to do with trying to achieve fair representation."

It's worth noting that courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have determined populations from district to district do not need to be exactly the same, and they do give greater leeway to state legislative lines. But while cases like Tennant v. Jefferson County and Reynolds v. Sims established that small deviations are fine, “as nearly as is practicable" populations must be equivalent. Further, they determined that where states do deviate, they must “justify population differences between districts that could have been avoided."

Flipping the math outside Columbus

In 2020, Senate District 16 was decided by just 116 votes. Incumbent Sen. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard, was able to fend off a challenge from first time Democratic candidate Crystal Lett.

“We were in the race for about two years," Lett, who now works with Red, Wine and Blue, said. “It was an insanely hard-fought race. I don't think I could have possibly worked harder than I did."

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Franklin County has grown considerably since the previous Senate map was drawn in 2011. That influx puts the district's current population more than 12 percent higher than the ideal population, and it has also pushed the district to the left, creating more of an opening for candidates like Lett.

But the results aren't likely to be as tight as they were in 2020 anytime soon. Under the previous map, district 16 favors Democrats over Republicans 52%-45%. With the new map, that advantage flips — favoring Republicans 52%-46%.

Mapmakers accomplished that swing by excising suburbs like Worthington that are trending blue, while adding in the entirety of largely rural Union County.

“I think the needs of Union County voters and the needs of Western Franklin County voters are significantly different," Lett argued. “I think it'd be a huge challenge to represent both areas and represent them well. And I think that's maybe the biggest offense of gerrymandering itself is that it lumps communities in that don't have much in common and expects someone to be able to meet the needs of everyone that they represent."

She also calls it “interesting" that she no longer lives in the district.

“They literally drew the line around my precinct to draw me out of the district," she laughed. “I am by a mile no longer in Senate District 16, which I can't imagine was done on accident."

The six-point swing in the 16th District is actually one of the biggest on the map, but by keeping the margin within the range of what could be considered competitive, it has the sheen of fairness. Similar shifts can be seen throughout the map. While a handful of left leaning districts see their margins climb markedly, right leaning districts see their figures move slightly — sometimes up, sometimes down, but often just enough to maintain an advantage. Niven says while those changes are subtle, they're significant.

“It's not that far of a distance from standing on the deck of a boat to being, you know, drowning in the water a few feet away," Niven said. “It's not that many votes, a lean Democratic district to a lean Republican district, but it makes a world of difference."

Sen. Kunze is term limited, so she won't end up running in the new 16th District. Still, she doesn't see the inclusion of Union County in her district as all that surprising given the population growth in central Ohio. And she rejects the idea that incorporating a largely rural neighboring county will change the complexion of the district. Instead, she highlights Jerome Village right across the county line from Dublin.

“That growth and influx is dynamic and increasing all the time, and to me, my little bit of time that I've seen and known people that moved out to Jerome village, that looks much more similar to a Franklin County (voter) than it does to a Union County voter," Kunze said.

Niven argues the impact of those changes affect more than just the margins. He says drawing in Union County re-centers the district — pushing it away from a growth area for Democrats and toward something of a no-man's land.

“So realistically, this would be an afterthought race for Democrats," Niven said. “Not one that they would go into fully expecting that they could win, which is I think where it is right now."

But Kunze and Lett are more sanguine about the district's competitiveness. Speaking about the current GOP advantage, Kunze said, “I expect that to drop. I expect it to remain a very competitive seat."

Although Lett believes the new district would be more challenging for Democrats, she thinks it's still winnable.

“If I swung the district nine points in 2020, could another Democrat come in and swing the district back to having a Democrat win? I think that's obviously possible," she said.

And that is part of the trade off when mapmakers maximize the efficiency of one party's votes. Although the lines are static, people aren't. Populations shift constantly, and given enough time, margins can narrow, or even flip.

But here again, Republican lawmakers may have insulated themselves by favoring a purely partisan process. Assuming the courts allow it to take effect, the new map will only be in place for the next four years, because no Democrats voted for it. With supermajorities in both chambers, and a map that gives them an edge, the GOP's grip on power seems unlikely to slacken before the latest map expires.

After that, Republicans can go back to the drawing board, and Ohioans could see the same process play out again.

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Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

Republican Mike Carey wins OH-15 special election

Republican former lobbyist Mike Carey has won a special election to represent Ohio's 15th Congressional District. The race raised the profile of an otherwise typical off-year election dominated by local offices like city council or school board.

The contest was seen by some outside Ohio as one of the latest proxies for determining former President Donald Trump's influence over GOP voters. But in the end, the reliably Republican seat offered few surprises.

In its 2021 partisan voter index, the Cook Political Report describes the district as favoring the GOP by nine points, and Cook's U.S. House editor Dave Wasserman noted Trump won the district by 14. The district has not flipped since being drawn in 2011. Neither has any other Ohio congressional district in the last 10 years, with the party of the incumbent going 82-0 in that time. Ohio's congressional delegation is split 12-4 Republican-to-Democratic.

While Franklin is the most populous county in the district that manages to claw together Columbus suburbs to the south and west like a giant hand making an 'OK' sign, the majority of voters live in one of the 11 other counties the district touches. That broad territory running from towns like Sabina in the west and out past Athens in the east gives the district a decidedly rural bent despite the suburban influence from Franklin County.

Carey's victory was built on winning big in those rural counties, stacking up two or even three to one margins among voters in counties like Clinton, Vinton and Ross according to unofficial results. Russo ran up big margins of her own in left-leaning Athens County, but she didn't notch the kind of overwhelming win she'd need in Franklin County to make up for weaker showings elsewhere.

The race was only on the ballot this year because Republican Steve Stivers resigned the seat earlier this year to lead the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. Stivers first won the seat in 2010 and won reelection handily in each successive race. But rather than run again in 2022, he joined the list of moderate Ohio Republicans, including Pat Tiberi, Anthony Gonzalez and Rob Portman, who found themselves displaced amid their party's hard, Trump-ward shift.

Mike Carey started Election Day in Columbus area suburbs, greeting voters in Upper Arlington, Grove City and Hilliard. In videos posted to Twitter he urged supporters to head to the polls from a handful of stops around the sprawling southern Ohio district.

State Rep. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, cast her vote Tuesday morning at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church with her family in tow. She described how getting results and having a voice in Washington were on the ballot, but admitted that, like any race, it would come down to turnout.

And turnout was up, relatively speaking, ahead of Election Day. Turnout was just a fraction of a typical even year congressional election, but in his final release of early and absentee voting data, Secretary of State Frank LaRose noted an 18% statewide increase compared to the last odd year election. Still, at the county level, early turnout results were mixed.

“I would say this is a pretty typical municipal election in an odd year," Fairfield County Board of Elections director Brett Riffle said Monday afternoon.

He explained a handful of voters were inside casting their ballots as he hung up signs announcing early voting had concluded. Another half dozen turned up just after the cut off.

In neighboring Pickaway County, though, board deputy director John Howley saw a noticeable uptick.

“One of the parties put out a mailer for absentee ballot applications, and it was money well spent because a lot of them got turned in," he said, taking a break from loading up machines for Election Day.

He explained in a typical off year election they'd see between half and three quarters of the requests they received this year.

Pickaway County voters Gale Gloyd and Barbara Caldwell cast votes for Mike Carey.

“He was the only choice, as far as I was concerned," Gloyd said.

Concerns about education and critical race theory were the primary motivator for Gloyd's vote. Caldwell spoke highly of former Congressman Stivers, and cited the U.S. border as her biggest political issue.

Denny and Lori Barker, also from Pickaway County, cast votes for Carey as well and put veterans' issues at the top of their list.

For those in Pickaway and Fairfield County who supported Allison Russo, one issue came to the fore — Carey's ties to HB6.

Carey worked for Murray Energy which made donations to a dark money group controlled by former House Speaker Larry Householder to promote candidates crucial to passing the nuclear bailout measure. Murray Energy stood to gain from coal provisions contained in the bill.

In Fairfield, Pamela McQuade described Carey's role in the HB6 “debacle" as the main issue that drove her decision. Stuart Michles from Pickaway voiced similar concerns about Carey being “mixed up somewhat" in the controversy.

“Which sadly to say is too normal," Michles said with a bitter laugh.

Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

Police abuse of paraplegic man shines light on state and local police reform efforts

During a traffic stop, late last month, Dayton police officers pulled Clifford Owensby from his car by the hair. Owensby, who is paraplegic, repeatedly told the officers he could not get out of the car, that he wanted them to call a supervisor, that they could hurt him by pulling him from the vehicle. They pulled him out anyway, handcuffed him, and dragged him away.

“It actually feels unreal, it feels like waking up to a bad dream over and over again," Owensby said of the incident in an interview Monday.

It comes as Dayton, like many cities around the country, works to reform its police department. In June of last year volunteers began developing recommendations, and city officials say they've completed more than 50 of the 142 proposals put forward. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley was quick to note those changes were instrumental in bringing to light what happened to Owensby.

“Without the police reform process there would never have been the body cameras in place, and the commitment from the city to show the video, right?" Whaley said. “So all of that process — the body camera policy, how we were going to have accountability and transparency in the process — that all came from police reform."

Local organizers like Daj'za Demmings recognize that point but can't help but be frustrated.

“They had body cameras, right? They were still bold enough to do everything they did knowing that those body cameras were on," she said. “That tells you the type of person it is. We can keep trying to fire the officer and do all this, but it's like cutting the leaves off. We have to get to the root of the issue."

To Demmings, the problem is one of mindset. She argued many officers come from outside the city and don't know how to operate in settings where people of color make up the majority of residents.

It's a point echoed by David Fox, a former police chief with forty years of law enforcement experience. He currently serves as criminal justice chair for the Dayton NAACP executive committee.

“This is about attitude," Fox said. “It's the attitude of the chief on down to the officers in terms of how do you respect and how do you give dignity to people? That's where it starts. And when you come into the community, the question is are you going to be a warrior or are you going to be a guardian?"

State efforts stalled

While Dayton pursues reform locally, a statewide proposal backed by the governor appears dead on arrival. Gov. Mike DeWine first announced his plans in June of 2020 alongside Attorney General Dave Yost. The package included banning chokeholds, providing oversight and independent investigations for use of force incidents, and state dollars for body cameras and training.

Legislation never materialized. Then in April, shortly after Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the murder of George Floyd, DeWine went on “Face the Nation," and argued there's a “clear pathway" for police reform. But so far, the closest DeWine's legislative partners have gotten is a measure expressing the intent to “study and implement" the governor's ideas.

That proposal never got a hearing.

One of the sponsors, Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Dayton, is the former sheriff for Montgomery County which includes Dayton. He called the Owensby video “disturbing."

“It doesn't look good for anybody," Plummer said. “It's difficult, but as long as the investigation is done and if there's wrongdoing they're held accountable and people are properly trained I think we can move forward."

Plummer spoke after a committee hearing aimed at setting up a vote for HB 435, the vaccine mandate measure favored by GOP leadership. The attempt to line up support for that bill ahead of a floor vote eventually fizzled, but the party's single-minded focus on vaccine politics is keeping initiatives like police reform on the back burner.

“It's kind of been put on hold for obvious reasons," Plummer said of the proposal. “We have this bill (HB 435), we have several other things pending, so we have to revisit that bill. It's not finished yet by any means."

Plummer's cosponsor, meanwhile, appears ready to move on to different, narrower approaches. Rep. Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, is a former Cincinnati police officer who now serves as assistant majority whip. Like Plummer, she pointed to other legislative demands like the budget or redistricting pulling attention away from police reform. As a former officer, she said her focus is on training.

“The more training you have, the better person you have in fill in the blank industry," Abrams explained.

She described securing a 50% match in funding for training in the last budget and said that going forward she wants to double that.

“We are working toward 100% state funded, mandatory training and it's going to be top notch for our law enforcement, and we will lead the nation in again, top notch, state funded law enforcement," Abrams said.

But so far as the governor's broader range of proposals, Abrams' focus right now is elsewhere.

“We'll take a look at it," Abrams said, “like I said, I'm focused on training right now, so that's not even a focus of mine at this moment,"

How Dayton moves forward

Without significant movement in the Statehouse, Dayton and other cities are on their own to figure out how to improve the relationship between police and the community.

“Oh, I'm shocked that the GOP Legislature hasn't moved at all on something important," Whaley said dripping with sarcasm.

Whaley, who is running for governor, criticized DeWine's approach as top-down while local efforts have been more inclusive.

“It's like we're going to do these things to communities, is the way Plummer and DeWine look at it, instead of how do we do things with communities," Whaley argued.

Operating alone, the city can't establish programs like a database of problem officers, but Whaley believes the city is taking meaningful steps to improve relations. She identified efforts to increase diversity in recruiting, expand training in de-escalation, and build alternative response systems to divert calls away from the police. Still, she acknowledged those changes won't yield results overnight.

“I don't think anybody in Dayton, and certainly not the city commission, and certainly not myself, and I don't believe the community, thought, 'Oh we did police reform so we've got this all figured out.' That is not the expectation, and I don't think anybody has that expectation down here in Dayton."

Whaley contended it will be up to the city to prove it is serious about reform in how it responds to use of force cases.

Neighbors react

On the block where Owensby was pulled from his car, neighbors are shaken. One woman who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation said incidents like Owensby's happen all the time, but rarely get reported. She argued whether he was involved in criminal activity or not, police should've treated him like a human being.

Another neighbor, who also didn't want to share his name, called the police response “wholly unacceptable." He was particularly concerned about officers using Owensby's criminal history as a pretext for searching the car and to discredit him after the fact.

“If he was wrong at any point," he asked, “does that give them the right to pull him out by his hair?"

For her part, Daj'za Demmings is frustrated with the state of local reform. She said the way police treated Owensby feels like a betrayal for some of those who participated in city's efforts. She also criticized city leaders for waiting almost two weeks to acknowledge the incident publicly.

“How can we vote for you?" she asked.

Demmings continues to demand accountability in the Ownesby case, and local officials are investigating. But the incident has also forced her to zero-in on one primary concern.

“I'm just trying to make sure that my community knows how to navigate the spaces that they're in," she said. “And like, who wants to have to have that conversation with a 12 year old boy? When a police says something to you, make sure your hands are visible, make sure you're looking them in the eye, no sudden movements, like who wants to say that to a child? But that's what we have to do, so that's where our focus is."


Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

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