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Years of Hard Work Pay Off in Ohio’s Big Win for #FairMaps


By Carrie L. Davis, Director, Democracy Program

Gerrymanderers are officially on notice. On Tuesday, May 8, Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed a statewide ballot issue to curtail gerrymandering of congressional districts.

Ohio’s win would be remarkable all on its own, but there are two questions that make it even more intriguing.

How did Ohio go from a landslide loss on redistricting reform in 2012 to a landslide win just a few short years later? And is the ballot victory in Ohio, together with the growing number of anti-gerrymandering court cases and citizen initiatives in other states, a harbinger of a much bigger reform wave?

Whatever the answers to these questions, let there be no doubt about one thing: victory for redistricting reform in Ohio is a great lesson in persistence when it comes to advocating policy change.

The Joyce Foundation has long been a supporter of redistricting reform, from the inception of our Democracy Program in the mid-1990s by the late Larry Hansen and continuing today. We are proud of the work by our grantees – Common Cause Ohio and League of Women Voters of Ohio - who led efforts in Ohio and those who relentlessly pursue redistricting reform in other Great Lakes states. Advocates and funders alike can learn from the successes – and the failures – to better understand the impact of long-term strategies.

While last week’s landslide victory in the Buckeye State appeared easy, the road to reform was anything but. It took years of hard-fought advocacy, public education, and organizing by good government groups to make this win possible.

As someone who co-led the Ohio effort for several years, here are my top three lessons learned, starting with persistence, in moving from a heartbreaking loss in 2012 to landslide wins in 2015 state reform and 2018 congressional district reform:

Keep at it.

There were a bunch of losses that ultimately laid the groundwork for success. We jokingly called it “losing up,” because even though we lost in 2012, it got the issue on the radar so we could keep pushing. Good government groups lobbied the legislature heavily and circulated petitions for a citizen initiative if the legislature refused to take up reform. One of the reasons cited by Republican Ohio legislators for why they came to the bargaining table to approve this reform is that they – and their donors – were sick of having to spend money to turn back citizen initiatives. And the combination of continued good government advocacy and the changing legal landscape with cases before the Supreme Court makes the issue harder to dodge. Apparently being relentless worked.

People won’t support an issue they don’t understand.

Many of the past efforts in Ohio lost, in part, because people found the issue confusing. Or maybe better put, we didn’t explain it well. But we finally caught on. We had to stop talking about the complicated inner workings of the reapportionment process and instead boil the issue down to “fairness,” as in Fair Districts, Fair Elections, and Fair Maps – terms that resonate with people because we all know in our gut what “fair” means. And then we needed to crank up the public education so people heard about Fair Districts a lot.

During the 2012 campaign, I regularly encountered people who had no clue what redistricting was. But last year, a volunteer in Cleveland told me, “I never thought that I’d be obsessed with gerrymandering, or that my friends would be too.” Once people know what Fair Maps and gerrymandering mean, they get mad and demand change.

There are many paths to reform, not just one “right way.”

Much of the arguing – in Ohio and other states considering reform – has been about what type of reform is good enough. Would-be reformers can spend weeks debating who should draw the maps and what rules they must follow. We can’t let ourselves get caught in the trap of only accepting the “perfect” reform – whatever that is.

In 2012, Ohio reformers put forward their version of a perfect plan, only to go down in defeat under criticism that it was too rigid and didn’t include others’ concerns. For both the state legislative district reform placed on the ballot in 2015 and the congressional reform in 2018, reformers and legislators negotiated a compromise.

Is the reform Ohio just passed perfect? No. Is it better than what Ohio had before? Yes, without a doubt.

As one redistricting expert explained:

“Ohio’s plan won’t fix everything. But that shouldn’t be the standard for voters to decide whether it’s a good idea. The introduction of seat belts did not immediately render cars crash-proof, but it was an important step in making them a lot safer.”
 Justin Levitt, associate dean of research and a professor of constitutional law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles

And by the way, those redistricting “seat belts,” while not perfect, passed by a landslide because more people were willing to put aside lingering doubts to support them.

I hope what we’re seeing now is the start of a trend, Ohio is just one of many states with out-of-control gerrymandering.

Pennsylvania won reform in the courts, Ohio won reform via the ballot, and many other states hope to follow. Wisconsin is awaiting what could be a landmark decision from the US Supreme Court. Michigan reformers are attempting both a lawsuit and a ballot issue. Illinois advocates keep pushing for reform, as are many other states.

A Washington Post columnist summed it up best:

“Stay tuned on whether redistricting advocates can repeat Ohio's success across the nation this November. If they do, it would signal a potentially historic turning point for America's relationship with the Way Things Are Done in politics.”

And that’s what social change is all about, building the groundwork for those historic turning points.