I got involved in politics soon after I moved to Sylvania, Ohio, 10 years ago. When the local Democratic Party was looking for people to help phone-bank and canvass in 2010, I volunteered. Our congresswoman, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, was running for reelection against a tea party Republican who dressed up for Nazi reenactments in his spare time. He was outspending her 2 to 1. It was her closest race in decades, but Kaptur won. I was satisfied knowing that I was being represented well, by someone who was directly engaged with our community. Sylvania is a union town, and people here knew Kaptur as the kind of politician who wasn’t afraid to go down to a picket line and see how she could help. People knew her well, and we trusted her.
Then Ohio Republicans redrew the map. Ever since then, my town has been roped into the Fifth Congressional District, where we’re represented by a Republican from Bowling Green, Robert E. Latta. My former district, meanwhile, got stretched into a long, narrow squiggle, less than a mile wide in some parts, reaching all the way to Cleveland, almost 100 miles away. In 2012, the new “Snake on the Lake” district forced Kaptur to run against a fellow Democrat, and he lost his seat. Meanwhile, Latta cruised to reelection, and he has in every race since.
Since then, I’ve gotten to know Latta’s political views and positions. He voted to destroy the Affordable Care Act, which would leave thousands of his constituents without insurance. He’s voted against legislation that would offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children, and for the Trump tax cuts, which massively benefited corporations and the wealthy at the expense of lower-income families. He’s tried, over and over, to permanently repeal the estate tax.
But gerrymandering means that my congressman hasn’t had to get to know me in turn. Back when my community was united with the rest of our county in one district, we felt like it was possible for us to make a political impact. Now, the gerrymandered map has made us outliers, easy to shrug off. While Sylvania is considered part of the Toledo metropolitan area, the rest of the district is mainly rural. Lucas County is a Democratic stronghold, but my part of it is now swallowed up in a district where we only have a 3 percent chance of being represented by a Democrat. We’re swamped by neighboring Republican areas such as Henry (which, in 2016, backed Donald Trump by almost 40 percentage points) and Fulton counties (36 points). I’ve never seen Latta at a town hall or a charity event, where organizers have made a point of inviting local officials. I’ve never gotten literature from him in the mail, introducing who he is and what he stands for. This is not a system that encourages politicians to pay attention to new corners of their districts.
My representative doesn’t have to bother to court my vote. This has been hugely disheartening, even as I’ve gotten more politically active over the years. After Ohio’s massive voter purges, my fellow volunteers and I got 40,000 people re-registered in Lucas County — many of them shocked to learn that they had a different congressman. And in each election cycle, I’ve gone door to door to remind my neighbors to go to the polls, and to keep them informed about ballot initiatives they might miss. But while I believe that this work is vital, it’s hard to get people excited to show up at the polls when they feel like they won’t be heard. When voters think that a race is rigged, they stay home. Gerrymandering would neutralize them anyway.
Ohio is a purple state, and if you look at the electorate, you’d expect it to be highly competitive: In 2018, Republicans won just over half the votes in the state’s U.S. House races. But, thanks to gerrymandering, they won three-quarters of the seats. In May 2018, Ohioans agreed on new rules that would prevent political parties from manipulating maps to gain permanent advantage, but these new districts would go into effect in 2021, at the earliest. Voters shouldn’t have to go through another election cycle using maps that we’ve already decided are unfair. This year, voting rights groups, including the A. Philip Randolph Institute (where I serve as president of the Toledo chapter), sued the state to get a new map in time for November 2020. The courts ruled Ohio’s maps an unconstitutional gerrymander, but the Supreme Court has put any redrawing on hold while they consider partisan gerrymandering cases in other states. Now we wait, nervous, as they prepare to rule on Maryland and North Carolina.
I don’t expect to agree with my congressman on every issue. But the system shouldn’t splinter communities until they’re too fragmented to make a difference. In a democracy, elected officials should have to work hard to get to know their constituents. They should have to compete with each other to prove that they would best represent the people’s interests and actively respond to their concerns. Gerrymandering lets them easily maintain their hold on power, while shutting our voices out.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.