The Blue Island


How Athens has been disempowered by gerrymandering

Bennett Leckrone / Senior Writer

Heather Taylor-Miesle still owns a shirt emblazoned with the slogan “When Athens votes, Ted wins.”

Taylor-Miesle, who has worked in politics for more than 20 years and is currently the executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council, worked for Ted Strickland’s campaign when he was a representative.

Strickland, a Democrat, would later become the governor of Ohio.

The city of Athens was part of the 6th Congressional District at the time, which encompassed most of southern Ohio, Taylor-Miesle said.

Now, most of Athens County is in the 15th Congressional District, with some of the southeastern portion of the county in the 6th Congressional District.

Athens was still a liberal holdout in a conservative area at that time, but Taylor-Miesle said the area was still able to have an impact on the district.

“I think it was intentionally disempowered,” Taylor-Miesle said regarding Athens in its current congressional district.


Marcus Pavilonis | ILLUSTRATION

The 15th congressional district, which incumbent Republican Steve Stivers and Democratic candidate Rick Neal are vying for, was drawn after the 2010 census to favor Republicans. It took effect in 2012 and will be in effect until 2022.

The District encompasses a large portion of Appalachian Ohio but also stretches north, looping around Columbus to capture parts of the city like the Brewery District and the city of Upper Arlington.

“When a district's been gerrymandered, especially to the degree that the 15th District has been gerrymandered, it's really an uphill battle,” said Athens County Democratic Chair John Haseley. “All of the numbers are working against you. It takes a lot of effort and everything has to come together to be successful when you're swinging upstream against gerrymandering.”

Beyond just heavily favoring Republicans, this district also presents a unique challenge to its representative, Ohio University political science professor Barry Tadlock said.

Both Stivers and Neal are from the Columbus area, a vastly different region when compared to Southeast Ohio. To properly represent the district would involve spending lots of time in vastly different communities learning about the issues in each town, Tadlock said.

“It necessitates a person who really embraces the idea of trying to represent all of the diverse areas in a district,” Tadlock said. “I think that can be really, really hard.”

Haseley acknowledged that proper representation is difficult to come by when someone is not from the area of their constituency.

“You try to have a representative that is more connected to your community and understands the problems and the values of a particular community or region, and having somebody from Upper Arlington representing Appalachia kind of defeats that whole premise,” Haseley said.

Athens is not the only area in the state with a vast and gerrymandered district. Current maps across the state have been designed to heavily benefit Republicans, Taylor-Miesle said. Of its 16 representatives, 12 are Republicans.

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Athens is in the 15th Congressional District as a result of gerrymandering. The District stretches as far west as Clinton County and includes certain Columbus neighborhoods, also as a result of gerrymandering. Read Senior Writer Bennett Leckrone's story to learn more about how Athens has been affected by redistricting and gerrymandering (link in bio)

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Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, or the “snake on the lake,” stretches thinly across the northern part of the state from Toledo to the outer reaches of the Cleveland area, being connected at one point only by a bridge. Another district takes the shape of a duck floating on water.

Athens disenfranchised

Gerrymandering, which means to redraw a district to favor one party, can lead to situations where representatives are from different regions, and whole different cultures, of the state than some of their constituents, Tadlock said.

Such is the case in the 15th District, where Stivers, a resident of Upper Arlington, represents many Appalachian Ohioans.

On paper, Athens doesn’t fit the mold of Appalachia.

Political views in Appalachia tend to be more right-leaning than in Athens, Tadlock said.

“I think culturally it is distinct from the other parts of Ohio in not just conservatism, but perhaps a more libertarian strain,” Tadlock said. “A resistance to an idea of government being a place to look to to solve problems.”

That is partly due to the economic situation in Appalachian Ohio, where some of the poorest counties in the state are located.

“The lack of any large metropolitan area figures into things as well because it means that there's just less in the way of economic development and job opportunities and more in the way of economic challenges like high unemployment and lower median income,” Tadlock said.

Athens stands out from that conservatism: The county was one of only eight out of 88 counties across the state where a majority of voters voted for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

“It's like an 800-pound gorilla in this part of the region. It's a more liberal element that would be associated with a major public university that you would not find in other parts of the region, and more affluence as well, and more impact from international students and even students from outside of the region that have come here to go to school.”Barry Tadlock

Democrats dominate Athens. Eleven out of the fourteen Athens County elected officials are Democrats. All three county commissioners are Democrats. So is the coroner, the treasurer, the clerk of courts, the prosecuting attorney, the county engineer and the recorder.

The only Republicans are two judges and Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson.

The county is an Appalachian anomaly. Only one other county in Ohio’s Appalachian region — Mahoning, where Youngstown is located — had a majority of voters who favored Clinton in 2016.

The presence of Ohio University and the population of the city of Athens are clear-cut reasons for the county’s image of a Democratic stronghold. Students from across the state, nation and world, as well as the community around Ohio University, give Athens its distinct sense of diversity and a more liberal feel than surrounding counties, Tadlock said.

“It's like an 800-pound gorilla in this part of the region,” Tadlock said of the city of Athens. “It's a more liberal element that would be associated with a major public university that you would not find in other parts of the region, and more affluence as well, and more impact from international students and even students from outside of the region that have come here to go to school.”

While Athens is located in a conservative area of Ohio that doesn’t always match its politics, Taylor-Miesle hopes that it could soon be better represented after recent reform efforts.


In May, the writing was on the wall for Ohio politicians.

The Fair Districts = Fair Elections Coalition, supported by the League of Women Voters of Ohio and a variety of other organizations, had collected enough signatures to get a redistricting reform measure on the November ballot.

Taylor-Miesle, who was involved with the coalition, has worked on ballot initiatives in multiple states. She said that she never saw as strong of a response as she did from Ohioans on redistricting reform.

“I have never seen anything even remotely like this,” Taylor-Miesle said of the initiative.

A ballot measure was added to the May ballot after weeks of negotiations between the Fair Districts = Fair Elections Coalition and the Republican-led Ohio Legislature.

Ian Dollenmayer, a legislative aide for Ohio State Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, one of the leaders on the legislative side of redistricting reform, said the senator previously worked on reforming the smaller state legislative districts, which passed in 2015.

“Keeping communities together keeps representatives close to home,” Dollenmayer said. “It prevents you from breaking down demographics and slicing up neighborhoods and counties.”

The reform, which will be used in the redrawing of districts in 2020 after the next census, creates several layers of approval required from both parties.

Under the old system, only a majority vote in both houses was required to pass redrawn maps. The new maps were drawn after the decennial census, and when a single party controlled the legislature during that time, the maps could be drawn heavily in the favor of a single party.


Marcus Pavilonis | ILLUSTRATION

In the new redistricting system, 60 percent of both the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate would have to approve the maps, with more than 50 percent from both parties in the legislature agreeing.

If that fails, a seven-member nonpartisan commission would get a chance to adopt a map with support from at least two members of the minority party.

If the commission also fails, the legislature would again try to redraw the maps, this time with at least one-third of the members from the two largest parties in the legislature. Another failure would result in a simple majority vote.

Taylor-Miesle thinks the districts will change tremendously and hopes that the new process could usher in a new era of collaboration between parties.

“We’ve lost the art of discussion and civil debates, and there’s no way to pass a map without some kind of civil debate,” Taylor-Miesle said. “That’s going to be a tremendous opportunity.”

Taylor-Miesle said she hopes the reformed redistricting system could lead to more compact districts – the measure requires that at least 65 of Ohio’s 88 counties be kept whole during the redistricting process.

“There are a lot of opportunities for Athens, which is growing by leaps and bounds right now, to have folks who really take in mind the values of that community as a primary objective whenever they go into Capital Square or Congress,” she said.

Development by: Megan Knapp / Digital Production Editor

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