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Columbus City Council is switching to a hybrid district system. What does that mean?

Colored districts overlay a map of Columbus.
City of Columbus
A map of Columbus shows the nine city council districts to which candidates will be elected this November, for terms starting in 2024. City Council chose the map in 2021 from three options drawn up by a five-person citizen districting commission.

Nancy Hughey of Columbus had already voted when she heard about Columbus City Council’s new hybrid at large-ward structure.

“To be honest, I haven't looked into that a lot,” Hughey said.

Elizabeth Grieser, Operations Manager at the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Columbus, has been doing outreach to explain the new city council system. She said most people were not aware of it.

“So, this hybrid system in which we have districts, but all voters in Columbus are voting on all candidates in all the nine districts, it takes a little bit for people to wrap their heads around because they're not used to seeing that type of organization,” she said.

How it works

Here’s how it works: City council expands from seven members to nine – a change meant to accommodate population growth in the city. Each council member has to live in a separate district in the city, but voters from across the city vote for all nine races.

The hybrid system aims to make sure every part of the city has a representative, while still keeping all council members accountable to the whole city.

“This system is creating better neighborhood representation and it is allowing us to be more aware of the potholes, the parks, the policing, the snow removal, the trash removal, all of those things,” said Niyah Walters, in-house counsel for Columbus City Council.

The switch to the hybrid system started in the May 2018 election, when about 75% of city voters in that election approved a charter amendment. A five-person citizen committee drew up options for district maps. In December 2021, Columbus City Council selected one.

All nine council seats are up for grabs – though only three races are contested: districts two, four and five.

No incumbents are running against each other. Council President Shannon Hardin and Councilwoman Shayla Favor both lived in District 7, which includes Franklinton, Short Noth and German Village, but Hardin moved.

"This system is creating better neighborhood representation and it is allowing us to be more aware of the potholes, the parks, the policing."
Niyah Walters, in-house counsel for Columbus City Council

Compromise or concession?

“I mean, it's not perfect, but I think it may be the best compromise that you could come up with,” said Dan Williamson, who was deputy chief of staff for former Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman.

Williamson said in not switching to a full ward system, the city avoided a situation where council members serving a small portion of the city compete for resources for their neighborhoods.

“I don't think it's a good idea to have different neighborhoods competing,” Williamson said.

But Williamson said the new system doesn’t open doors for political newcomers. City Council is technically nonpartisan, but candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party have an advantage, regardless of the structure of council, Williamson said.

“If I was a betting person, I would bet that every candidate endorsed by the Democratic Party will win,” he said.
 
Former political candidate and activist Morgan Harper of Columbus said the hybrid system doesn’t do enough to make politics accessible.

“I think that is a little bit misleading to think that the system that we have is actually going to lead to the best representation for the people of Columbus,” she said.

While a change to the signature requirement makes it easier for candidates to get on the ballot, a citywide campaign is still expensive, she said.

“So, unfortunately, I think this will lead to a lot of, you know, the same players that get elected,” she said.

Harper believes a true ward system would have made it easier for an average person to run and actually win.

“What we're actually doing is suppressing the diversity of viewpoints, and that is not compatible with a thriving democracy,” she said.

The switch to the hybrid district system comes with some other quirks: for example, it is possible for a candidate to get elected without getting any votes from their district.

Williamson says he thinks that’s unlikely, and he doesn’t believe it’s an inherent problem of the system. Columbus’ Walters said the possibility also exists in city council’s current at-large system.

And to stagger terms, the nine newly elected council members will have to draw lots. Five will have a four-year term, while four will face another election in just two years.

“I think that is a little bit misleading to think that the system that we have is actually going to lead to the best representation for people of Columbus."
Morgan Harper, political activist and former candidate

An experimental system

The League of Women Voters’ Grieser said many voters have told her they are reserving judgement until they see how everything plays out. Grieser believes the goal is to get the best of both systems, and she personally expects a positive change. She admits, however, that there could be negative side effects.

“And that is why this is a little bit of an experiment,” she said.

Both Grieser and Williamson said they’re not aware of any other cities using the hybrid system.

“So, if it becomes successful, we could be a pilot for other cities,” Grieser said.

As for what voters should know: they should vote in all nine districts and pay special attention to contested races. Anyone wanting to find their district can visit the city's interactive map.

WOSU Reporter George Shillcock contributed to this report.

Allie Vugrincic is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She comes to Columbus from her hometown of Warren, Ohio, where she was a reporter, features writer and photographer for four years at the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator newspapers.