How the Ohio Redistricting Commission's mapmakers work

Posted at 6:12 PM, Mar 25, 2022

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The state is just days away from court ordered legislative maps being adopted. But this time, the Ohio Redistricting Commission (ORC) changed up their process.

After the third set of state legislative district maps was rejected by the Ohio supreme court, outside mapmakers were brought in.

In a Statehouse room with low lighting sits two men, three computers and a whole lot of Coca-Cola cans.

Mapmakers Michael McDonald and Douglas Johnson have been working around the clock since they were appointed as the ORC's newest hope to get the districts finished for the elections.

"We are working on a first take on the map making progress," Johnson said. "It is slow going, as you know and we continue to work on it."

Read more about the mapmakers from News 5 Cleveland's news partner Ohio Capital Journal.

Just like the mapmakers, Geography Professor at Ohio State University Dr. Ningchuan Xiao said the state is in for a tedious process.

There are different types of maps. General reference, topographical, thematic, navigation charts and cadastral maps and plans, according to the Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping. Topographic maps, for example, are for the environment and elevation. Thematic maps display a geographic pattern of a subject matter, Xiao said.

"[Thematic] maps are generally hard to make because it's not just a natural project," he said. "It is a social and cultural project that is actually produced."

These types of maps are difficult technically, because the designer deals with many different units that have to put it together to form a district, he added. They are especially challenging because they are screened by a lot of people coming from all different kinds of perspectives.

"So constitutionally speaking, all redistricting maps should be evaluated and assessed based on population because in the American democracy, the principle is one person, one vote," the professor said. "So you partition the state into multiple districts, ideally all those districts that have exactly the same amount of people, but then it is possible to make multiple maps."

The possibilities are endless in how to divide the state. Population size is always the most important factor in redistricting, he said, citing the constitutional requirement.

There are also other attributes to look for. One is how compact the areas are, he said.

"The more compact ones are better ones because you are less likely to cheat with the map," he said.

Without looking at the detailed data, the easiest thing for the court to tell is actually the shape. Some other states have different rules, such as not breaking up counties and protecting specific local communities.

When someone is creating a map, they are able to actually see the data — but no one else can. This is a way gerrymandering can impact. If one party has specific data that another doesn't, then the former party can influence the voting process, he said.

In Ohio, the new mapmakers have the same data.

Another criteria for mapmaking is looking into demographics and race. However, the Commission told the mapmakers they are not allowed to take racial data into account. As a professional map researcher, Xiao said this isn't a great idea for equity.

"I mean, the reason really is to to make sure that some of the underrepresented group members will be elected, otherwise they're going to be diluted into different districts," he said. "If you want to correct the wrongs in the history of this country, probably race should be, you know, fairly and carefully considered."

Senate President Matt Huffman, alleged leader of the redistricting process by the Supreme Court, said that it is a violation of federal law to include racial data.

"Probably from from the perspective of the law, it is really kind of unconstitutional to look at race as a part of the factor to make decisions, but things have changed," Xiao said. "The Voting Rights Act, actually because of that act the Supreme Court actually allows certain states to design districts now to focus on race."

Although the mapmakers are working solo right now, they will eventually need to take their drafts and combine them on one computer. The Supreme Court is giving the Commission until March 28 to adopt new legislative maps.

Xiao believes it will be possible to finish the maps by that time, but the legal process to accept them may be the challenge.

To catch the mapmakers in action, stream the entire process live on the Ohio Government Channel.

RELATED: Ohio redistricting panel charts course to 4th map proposal

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