Democratic Voices testifies before Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission, urges Congressional redistricting reform

On Thursday, January 14, 2016, members of DemVoices’ staff – Executive Director Alex Kass, Policy Director Natalie Davis, and Communications Manager Colleen Craig – gave testimony before the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission‘s Legislative Branch and Executive Branch Committee on why voters, especially young, “millennial” voters, need to see their policymakers are serious about addressing the root causes of a divisively rigged democratic process.

Our purpose there was to urge the committee’s immediate action to move the Congressional redistricting reform proposal out of committee, and back out to the General Assembly, with the committee’s recommendation that our lawmakers work to move that initiative to the ballot as soon as possible.

Voter disengagement is rampant, hardly anyone thinks the democratic process works for us, and it’s causing people to further tune out from the political conversation at a moment when their engagement with these civil issues is most urgently needed. Fixing the exceptionally partisan-rigged map of Congressional districts we have right now – which won Republicans 12 of Ohio’s 16 U.S. House seats in 2012, or 75% of the seats, despite them winning just 52% of the vote – should be at the very top of the list of lawmakers’ priorities. Unfortunately, that’s not how leaders in the state legislature have been acting.

Below, you can read through and share the testimony we gave before the Committee.

Alex’s Testimony

Chairman Mills and Members of the Legislative and Executive Branch Committee,

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before your committee today.

My name is Alex Kass, and I am the Executive Director of Democratic Voices of Ohio, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, based in Columbus, that’s been a connector for progressive causes to maximize their digital engagement with voters since early 2015. I am joined here by my colleagues, Natalie Davis and Colleen Craig, to add some millennial perspectives to the conversation about Ohio’s urgent and critical need to fix our flawed Congressional redistricting process.

DemVoices, much like Ohio’s newly created Future Caucus, strives to move our state forward, unencumbered by the divisive partisanship that too often sets Ohio back. The polarization of our Congress has cultivated feelings of apathy among many voters, especially among young voters and others who are aware of the role that gerrymandering has played in the problem. Millennials want progress, not polarization. We want opportunities to have a new conversation, not continue to have the same conversations that have long divided our state and dogmas that tell us it’s useless to even hope, let alone work for change.

Here’s my millennial profile, an Ohio resident and voter: I came back to Ohio after graduating college, not because I thought Columbus was exactly the city I wanted to live in, but because I knew that eventually it could be; I was enticed by the possibilities I envisioned would be here for me as a millennial professional with a new media mindset, and a desire to contribute to the flow of progress.

What I found is that the City of Columbus that I knew growing up – the liberal, most populous city in Ohio – is a very, very different place than the State Capital of Ohio, Columbus, in which I’m now working. The priorities that we’re seeing bear out in the actions and expressed positions of Ohio’s elected officials are not representative of the priorities of most in my generation. Whether aware of it or not, millennials are digital natives – we grew up alongside the rise of the Internet, social media, mobile communication, and the dominion of data, and that’s made it nearly impossible to fool us into believing a top-down story about what someone else claims is our political reality. Millennials occupy a pivotal seat in this electorate, but not its elected representation. So we’re calling on this Committee and the Ohio General Assembly to make the changes we need to see for a future that represents us, too.

Leading up to last November’s election, my office was heavily involved in advocating for the passage of statewide Issue 1. Our role was digital communication, reaching voters through social media with creative tactics designed to get them to engage with an issue that some might not think is the most glamorous or clickable – to use a web term – for most people in our entertainment-seeking culture. What we found in the public response, however, was quite different than our expectations. We were surprised that people across the entire political spectrum, across all age groups, were engaging in huge numbers with our messaging about this issue. It was clear from the public response that voters know that gerrymandering is a big part of why their votes don’t matter as they should.

Through our research and advocacy efforts, what has become clear is the frustration among millennial voters, who too often feel degraded by a state that fails to represent their interests. Simply put, millennials are feeling like a lame-duck electorate.

Natalie’s Testimony

Chairman Mills and Members of the Legislative and Executive Branch Committee,

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.

My name is Natalie Davis. I am a recent graduate of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University, and have undertaken the role of Policy Director at Democratic Voices. I am here today to speak to you about the impact that both gerrymandering and the hostile political climate of Ohio have on voter turnout among millennials.

A 2012 study from the University of Copenhagen looks at the relationship between leaving home as a young adult and the social impact of voting. This study of first-time and young voters found that leaving home at age 18 for college or work negatively impacts the likelihood of voting. The study finds that if both parents of an individual vote, the predicted probability of the individual voting drops 18% when the young individual leaves home. That probability of voting continues to decrease with time spent on their own or among other young people. In addition to just being away from the influence of civically engaged adults, students face unique challenges to voting. The question of voter identification, residency status of out-of-state students, transportation to polls, and transitioning from dorm life to an off campus apartment are all challenges that drive down student turnout.

As a student at Ohio State, I was heavily involved in a number of organizations that worked to register students to vote and engage them in the discussions of public policy. Our goal was to take all of the challenges students face in voting and make things easier and less stressful. We registered students to vote, offered to send email reminders on Election Day, and produced nonpartisan how-to voting guides.

Despite our efforts, conversations with students across campus revealed that many – if not most – of my peers were outright turned off by a system that they believe works against them. These students were conscious of the way districts are drawn, and felt that registering to vote and going to the polls was a waste of time when the districts are drawn with a decided winner in mind. Simply put, students do not think their votes count. Millennials feel alienated and belittled by the electoral system, and in typical millennial form, we won’t put up with it. I believe that widespread voter apathy, which we saw plainly in turnout numbers in 2014 and 2015, is a result of the gerrymandered districts that discount the value of an individual’s vote.

Data have shown that as time goes on from year one of voting eligibility, an individual becomes less and less likely to vote. Couple that with growing apathy and disinterest in our electoral system, and I fear that voter engagement will continue to diminish.

This committee cannot fix the problems of voter engagement or student apathy. However, I strongly urge committee members to consider the widespread implications of gerrymandering and recommend that the Ohio General Assembly put before voters a Congressional redistricting reform plan, modeled after the state legislative redistricting plan, that just won with overwhelming bipartisan support. Thank you.


Colleen’s Testimony

Chairman Mills and Members of the Legislative and Executive Branch Committee,

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon.

My name is Colleen Craig, and, in addition to my position with Democratic Voices, I am also a 3rd year undergraduate studying Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, expecting to graduate this Spring. Reiterating what both Natalie and Alex have said about the sentiments of millennial voters in Ohio, I am here to confirm from a first-hand perspective the frustrations that many of us feel with the political climate of polarization in this state, much of which can be attributed to gerrymandering.

Growing up, my parents made every effort to ensure that my siblings and I were engaged with what was happening in politics. I was told that when I turned 18, I would have the opportunity to exercise my right to vote and elect leaders who would be representative of my voice. But in searching for words to describe how it feels to be a millennial voter in Ohio, the most apt descriptor I can come up with is alienated. Ironically, though, I know I am not alone.

A 2015 Gallup poll reported that, among Ohio voters, 40% identified as Republicans and 46% as Democrats, yet Congressional Democrats from Ohio are outnumbered 3 to 1. Despite our reputation for being a swing-state, the gerrymandered map of Ohio’s Congressional Districts has made Ohio a practically inhospitable place for people like myself whose politics don’t align with that of the party in power. When the pendulum swings back, I don’t want others to feel equally marginalized. All voters deserve competitive elections. (That’s not what they’re getting now with the way the districts are drawn.)

This being my final semester in undergrad, I am currently faced with a lot of choices about where to go from here. While I feel passionately about working to improve Ohio for mine and future generations through a career in public policy and political advocacy, I can’t help but feel defeat in the fact that a large faction of my generation has been silenced and ignored by those whose duty it is to act as our voice.

As I continue to make decisions about my life going forward, I question whether Congress will make decisions in consideration of the issues facing my generation, including student loan debt, accessible healthcare, social acceptance of minorities and environmental security. But I have hope, and I feel confident that Congressional Redistricting Reform may be the answer to not only engaging my generation in the political process once again, but finding bipartisan solutions to these issues that affect our daily lives.

I strongly encourage committee members to consider the role gerrymandering has played in alienating millennial voters in Ohio, and to officially ask the Ohio General Assembly to put a meaningful Congressional Redistricting Reform plan before voters as soon as possible.

If you’d like to get involved in the fight to bring a Congressional redistricting reform initiative to the ballot, sign up here with ProgressOhio to be informed about the ways to take action.