Legislating Republican Control in Ohio

The Nov. 2 election is behind us, leaving cheering Republicans eager to complete their reclamation of America and deflated Democrats terrified of unbridled conservatism. As predicted by most, Ohio

Nov 17, 2004 at 2:06 pm

The Nov. 2 election is behind us, leaving cheering Republicans eager to complete their reclamation of America and deflated Democrats terrified of unbridled conservatism.

As predicted by most, Ohio was the prized jewel of the election, the vote so close that challenger John Kerry didn't concede the state's valuable cache of 20 electoral votes until the day after the polls closed. With absentee and provisional ballots yet to be counted, President Bush defeated Kerry by less than 2.5 percent of the total votes cast.

But most other races in Ohio were lopsided. Popular Republican Sen. George Voinovich pummeled his tenacious yet doomed challenger Eric Fingerhut by nearly 28 percentage points. State Issue 1, the ballot provision to amend the Ohio Constitution to ban gay marriage and prohibit governmental recognition of other non-marital unions, passed by nearly 24 percentage points.

Of the four Ohio Supreme Court races, one incumbent, Justice Paul Pfeiffer, ran unchallenged and another, Terrence O'Donnell, won by more than 21 percentage points. Judith Lanzinger beat out Nancy Fuerst for retiring Justice Francis Sweeney's seat by a comfortable 14 percentage points. Chief Justice Thomas Moyer defeated C. Ellen Connally by less than 7 percentage points, the slimmest margin amongst the Supreme Court races.

The progressive coalition of Alice Robie Resnick, Andrew Douglas, Pfeifer and Sweeney that declared Ohio's school funding system unconstitutional is now down to Resnick and Pfeifer.

Conservative former Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor won Douglas' seat in 2002, when he was forced to retire by the court's age restriction. Similarly, Sweeney was forced to retire this year, and the conservative Lanzinger captured his seat.

The landslide victories prevalent amongst the races for Ohio's federal and state representatives provide clear evidence of the success of the redistricting plan recently implemented by Ohio's Republican-controlled General Assembly. Every 10 years state legislatures redraw congressional districts to reflect the population shifts in the U.S. Census, with the theoretical intent of ensuring equal representation for the constituents of federal and state congressmen.

However, rather than redrawing district lines for the sole purpose of ensuring such equal representation, majority lawmakers engage in a sophisticated, computer-assisted endeavor to herd the minority party's supporters into as few districts as possible, thus minimizing that party's effectiveness in the remaining districts. In Ohio, this effort resulted in a few heavily Democratic districts, with all other congressional districts having a high enough Republican concentration to nearly guarantee a victory. Amazingly, the courts have sanctioned this behavior, even though it nearly guarantees that the minority party is always at a distinct disadvantage.

The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit, non-partisan group dedicated to promoting fair elections, contends that gerrymandering, as the process of partisan redistricting is known, resulted in districts so overwhelmingly concentrated in favor of one party that in 2004 no challenger bothered to run against the incumbent in nearly 39 percent of all state legislative races around the country.

In Ohio, only 18 percent of the General Assembly seats went uncontested, but incumbents clearly had a major advantage due to redistricting. Going into the election, 13 of Ohio's 18 U.S. representatives were Republicans. One incumbent ran uncontested. Each of the remaining 17 incumbents defeated their opponents by a landslide. The average margin of victory was a staggering 35 percentage points, and the closest contest was decided by more than 17 percentage points.

Incumbent state senators also benefited from redistricting. Ohio's senate is comprised of 33 lawmakers, and the 16 even-numbered districts were up for election this year. In each of these districts, either the incumbent or, if that individual didn't run for re-election, the incumbent party won the election. Of 14 contested races — two candidates ran uncontested — the average margin of victory was more than 29 percentage points. Republicans hold 22 of the 33 state senate seats after the election, as they did prior to the election.

All 99 seats in the Ohio House of Representatives were up for election this year. Prior to the 2004 election, 62 of these districts were represented by Republicans and 37 were represented by Democrats. In 22 districts, candidates ran uncontested, a testament to the lack of competitiveness. In 74 of the 77 contested districts, the incumbent party retained the seats and averaged a margin of victory that exceeded 27 percentage points. Democrats defeated two incumbent Republicans and Republicans defeated an incumbent Democrat, resulting in a one-seat gain by Democrats.

The election for Ohio State Board of Education attracted more attention than normal this year, due mainly to the reelection effort of Michael Cochran, the board member largely responsible for the attempt to include creationism — the religious story of divine involvement in the earth's creation — in Ohio's science curriculum. After much debate, the board settled on a compromise: Creationism was neither specifically included nor specifically excluded from the science curriculum. The decision of whether to teach this religious story as science has been left to individual teachers.

Cochran won his re-election bid by a slim margin, as did Virgil Brown, who also voted for the compromise curriculum. Robin Hovis, who voted against the curriculum, was defeated, while Jennifer Stewart, who also voted against it, won.

The election changed Ohio's political map in small but significant ways. The state Supreme Court is conservative by a 5-2 margin instead of a 4-3 margin. The state school board is at least as conservative as it was before the election, and more attempts at incorporating religion into science classes might be forthcoming. Republicans continue to dominate the General Assembly and Ohio's representation in the U.S. Congress.

Due to the practice of drawing congressional districts with the intent of keeping the majority party in power and the slow death of once-powerful, pro-Democratic labor unions, there is no reason to assume that this map will change significantly at any time in the near future.