Monday, September 26, 2005

 

Democracy, competition and Issue 4 [Updated]

[Update - If you take the time (thank you) to read the post below, also go over to Kos and read this.]

Issue 4 is arguably the most important of the battery of four amendments that comprise the Reform Ohio Now initiative. Issue 4 is the one that would eliminate Ohio's current system of party-controlled gerrymandering and replace it with an independent commission that would prioritize the need for competitiveness and commonalities of interest in drawing legislative districts.

A lot of general comments have been made about the need for Issue 4, but we have been spending a few days looking at the numbers from the 2004 for election to see what they can tell us about the problems of the current system.

The first thing we gathered from the numbers from the Secretary of State's office is that outcome of Ohio's legislative races has little to do with the total votes cast.

What do we mean?

Take Ohio's 18 congressional races. We wanted to look at the numbers in a way that the Republican Party and their Ohio First minions don't want the public to think about them. For years, they (and, honestly, the Democrats before them) have wanted the discussions about the races to be considered only at a district-by-district level. And no wonder!

Let's take a step back for a moment and look at the overall voting pattern in these congressional races. The total votes cast statewide for each party's congresssional candidates were remarkably close. Republicans congressional candidates received 2.65 million votes and the Democrats 2.51 million. That's only a 2-3% difference. (This closely mirrored the votes cast in Ohio in the presidential race: 2.86 million versus 2.74 million, also a 2% difference.)

We repeat, the difference in total votes cast for Republican and Democratic candidates was a little over 2%.

Yet, despite the closeness of the total votes, the real outcome - when the votes are allocated to their gerrymandered districts - came nowhere near to reflecting this close vote. Regardless of the 2% difference, Republicans took 12 seats leaving only 6 for the Democrats.

Now, Republicans could have easily argued that a 10-8 division of these seats was fair, and they may have even been able to press their luck with an argument for a 11-7 split. But even reasonable people from both parties can see that a 12-6 split treats democracy as a joke.

The fact that a 2% difference in votes can get translated into a 33% difference in seats shows the utter power of gerrymandering to pack meaningless votes into the minority party's districts.

Further, gerrymandering has the utter power to destroy competition.

We'll soon come back to this subject of competition, but first we need to give it some context. Typically, an incumbent is considered to be vulnerable when his or her previous opponents have come within 5, maybe 10 percentage points. Much above that and we are into "sacrificial lambs" territory. (Of course, this isn't an absolute. As the Paul Hackett-Jean Schmidt race showed, when the right candidate runs during a period when public opinion is in flux, even a 40%+ margin can be overcome).

But, if as political strategists, we start looking for those races where we can try to create a 5 or 10 point shift, home many "competitive" races do we find?

Take a look at the 2004 winning margins in Ohio's congressional races, arranged from smallest margin to largest:

Picture 1

As is readily apparent, no race suggests it will be competitive in 2006 given that the smallest margin is 17%, and that the average margin is an astounding 39%.

Similar searches for competitive races in the Ohio General Assembly's house and senate contests have equally dismal results.

In fact, out of the 133 legislative races in Ohio in 2004 (18 congress, 99 Ohio house, 16 Ohio senate), only 5 were decided by a margin of 5% or less, and only 15 by 10% or less. The average margin of victory in all of the races was 42%!

At the other end of the spectrum in 26 races - one out of five - the incumbent didn't even face an opponent.

The point of all this is that Issue 4 is needed because gerrymandering, ipso facto, has sucked every last bit of competition from Ohio's legislative races. The days of playing the "what-if" barroom games of plotting the Democrat's return to power by shifting a few percentage points in this race or that race are over.

Completely over.

Issue 4 is our only hope.

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