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Only in the Midwest: At more than 300,000 people, Ohio's Senate districts are largest in region — and among largest in nation

by Mike McCabe ~ February 2013 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Across the Midwest, the average state representative serves just over 58,000 constituents, while the average state senator represents almost 122,000. Both of these numbers are slightly lower than the corresponding national averages, and state-specific figures vary significantly, depending on population size and the number of seats in each legislative chamber.
In North Dakota, for example, each legislator represents just over 14,000 constituents (each of the state’s 47 districts includes two representatives and one senator), the smallest such number among senate constituencies nationwide.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ohio stands out as the state with the region’s largest legislative districts. The Midwest’s second-most populous state, Ohio is governed by one of the region’s smallest legislatures.
That means its 132 members typically represent much larger constituencies than do their counterparts in other states. An average house district encompasses 116,530 residents, which ranks fifth nationally among lower legislative chambers.
With almost 350,000 constituents, the Buckeye State’s 33 Senate districts are fourth-largest in the country. (California’s are the largest; at more than 931,000, they have more people than an average U.S. congressional district.)
Ohio’s current legislative structure, in which each Senate district encompasses three contiguous House districts, was adopted by constitutional amendment in 1967. According to former Senate President Stan Aronoff, who served in the Ohio General Assembly for 36 years before retiring in 1996, the amendment was part of a wave of reforms designed to implement the “one man, one vote” principle established by the U.S. Supreme Court during the early 1960s.
Legislative districts in Ohio had tended to vary considerably in size, effectively diluting the influence of voters in underrepresented areas. Aronoff says the current system has served the state well, and has “led to a greater focus on constituent services.”
The significance of Ohio’s relatively large constituencies appears to vary by chamber and by district. Sen.
Peggy Lehner, who has served in both houses of the General Assembly and currently represents a district in southwest Ohio, says the large size of her constituency isn’t always as apparent as it would be in a more rural area.
“I don’t feel it the way some of my colleagues do,” she says. “Nothing in my district is more than 15 minutes away.”
Lehner’s district lies entirely within one county, and compared to other districts in Ohio, it tends to be more demographically homogenous. She also benefits from the extra support that senators receive with constituency outreach.
“I have really good staff,” Lehner says, “and a lot more help than I had in the House.”

Sen. Cliff Hite, who has also served in both chambers, agrees that the additional staff is a plus. Still, he says there is no substitute for getting out and meeting constituents, a challenge for him in a northwest Ohio district that encompasses parts or all of 11 counties.

“I’m dependent on local officials in my district to keep me informed,” he says.
Representing parts of 11 counties means needing to know and work with 11 sets of county officials. And, Hite quips, “It means you have to be willing to go to 11 county fairs; at five elephant ears per county fair, I eat a lot of bad food.”
Hite says that personal contact is essential, regardless of district size. “If you are not willing to network and communicate, then having a large district could be a detriment,” he says. “You have to make it work, or you work your way out. If you’re not a people person, you shouldn’t be doing this.”

 

Article written by Mike McCabe, director of CSG Midwest. Only in the Midwest is an ongoing series highlighting unique aspects of state governments and legislatures in the Midwest. Past articles are available at www.csgmidwest.org.