The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion My district was gerrymandered. The damage is easy to measure.

David Niven, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, holds a map displaying the wide disparity of Ohio congressional district office locations, with orange locations representing areas whose offices are found outside their own district's bounds. A federal court ruled May 3 that Ohio's congressional map is unconstitutional and ordered a new one be drawn for the 2020 elections. (John Minchillo/AP)

Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat, represents Ohio’s 9th Congressional District in the House.

When I was first elected to Congress in 1982, women weren’t allowed in the House gym, American Motors was still producing cars such as the Gremlin and the Pacer in my hometown of Toledo, and Ohio had just elected 10 Democrats to Congress.

That last number might not sound like a big deal, but the chance of that happening today borders on impossible.

In 1982, Ohio sent 21 representatives — 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans — to Congress from districts that were drawn to be competitive and compact. Voting patterns haven’t changed much since: In 2018, 2,245,403 Ohioans voted to send a Republican to Congress and 2,019,120 Ohioans voted to send a Democrat. That’s 52 percent to 47 percent. Yet only four Democrats were elected last fall, compared with 12 Republicans.

We all know the culprit: radical, partisan gerrymandering.

From January 1983 to December 2012, my district stayed largely the same — always centered around Toledo. But after the Republican victory in 2010, Republicans redrew the lines in their favor, to appalling effect. When GOP operatives emerged from a closed-door hotel conference room in 2011, they delivered one of the most politically gerrymandered congressional maps the country had ever seen. Democrats were packed into as few districts as possible, suppressing the value of hundreds of thousands of votes.

Cleveland’s Democratic representative, Dennis Kucinich, and I were gerrymandered into the same district — now known as the “Snake on the Lake” — and forced to run against each another. This long, skinny district stretches nearly 100 miles from Toledo to Cleveland, is less than a mile wide in some places and is contiguous only by Lake Erie.

And though Ohio lost two seats to reapportionment in that year, Republican representation increased from eight to 12, while our party’s share fell from 10 to four. It’s stayed there ever since.

The damage done by gerrymandering isn’t difficult to measure. It breeds partisan legislators, who in turn breed a partisan Congress. Gerrymandering has made virtually all House seats safer — including mine — and the members who hold those safe seats are often less responsive to communities and unwilling to compromise in Washington.

The bipartisan camaraderie that once existed in the House is now all but gone. Because members come from safer seats, they have less incentive to build meaningful relationships with those outside their own party, and so they make fewer friends and rarely have constructive debates.

The result is both the decay of our national discourse and the failure of our institutions to fulfill their most basic functions.

More fundamentally, the gerrymander dilutes the popular vote to protect incumbents. Instead of the voters picking their leaders, the leaders pick their voters.

But there is hope.

Two weeks ago, a panel of federal judges for the Southern District of Ohio struck down Ohio’s congressional district map as an unconstitutional, partisan gerrymander — echoing similar rulings in four other states.

Judge Karen Nelson Moore of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit wrote in her opinion that Ohio’s map is “so skewed toward one party that the electoral outcome is predetermined, ” and concluded “the map unconstitutionally burdens associational rights by making it more difficult for voters and certain organizations to advance their aims.”

Ohio was ordered to submit new legislative maps to the court by June 14. If it fails to enact a remedial plan, or enacts a plan that the court finds illegal, the court will appoint a special master to redraw the lines.

Ohio’s Republican attorney general has said he will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. This presents the court with an opportunity to consider the will of the voters, to uphold fairness and to restore democracy in Ohio. And it is clear the public wants change: In 2018, Ohio voters approved bipartisan map-drawing by an overwhelming majority — 75 percent to 25 percent.

Given how close our elections have been over the past 30 years, my state should probably have eight Republicans and eight Democrats representing it in Washington.

In the meantime, gerrymandering contorts communities and makes too many lawmakers politically untouchable. Everyone, in Ohio and the nation, suffers when outcomes are preordained and engineered to the extremes. Restoring representative delegations to Congress must be the first step in restoring the public’s confidence in our government. Liberty and justice must be restored.

Read more:

Henry Olsen: Courts can’t solve our gerrymandering problem. Take it from a former gerrymanderer.

George F. Will: The Supreme Court should steer clear of gerrymandering cases

The Post’s View: Missouri Republicans want to undo voters’ redistricting wishes. The Supreme Court should take note.

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: A court just dealt a blow to rigged elections. It probably won’t last.

Paul Waldman: Republicans everywhere are waging a desperate battle against democracy