Image of puzzle pieces on a table in the shape of the City of Cleveland and people standing around the table.
Cleveland's ward boundaries have changed over the years and may change again. How are boundaries drawn and what is the process to change them? Credit: John G/Shiner Comics

Cleveland has 17 City Council wards. Many Clevelanders probably think about those boundaries when they elect council members every four years – or if they need to know who to call about a problem with their trash cans. 

The number of council seats is expected to shrink by two before 2025 because Cleveland’s population is shrinking. That means the ward boundaries will change. 

How does that happen? Who gets to decide which wards are eliminated and which new ward takes in those residents?

What is a ward?

A ward is a political boundary used to determine representation on Cleveland City Council. Right now there are 17 wards, a number that can fluctuate based on population change.

Unlike other major Ohio cities such as Cincinnati and Columbus, Cleveland has no at-large council members, who represent the city as a whole rather than individual wards.

Update: In 2023, Columbus will shift from at-large council seats to seats based on new council districts. Residents citywide can vote for each of the district seats.

Geographic boundaries are created in different ways and serve different purposes. Neighborhoods can be determined informally by residents, census tracts or historical events and are often used to define community. ZIP codes are defined by the U.S. Postal Service. Ward boundaries are used to break up the city for legislative representation.

City Council elections are held every four years. In addition to their legislative responsibilities for creating and passing city laws, a council member will shoulder the responsibility to serve the ward’s best interests. 

Having clearly defined ward boundaries helps council members better understand the residents they serve using census data, which includes demographics of race, income and more.

How is the number of wards determined?

Cleveland’s charter, the city’s governing document, details how population informs the number of wards the city will be divided into at the time of redistricting.

Number of wards will be an odd number between 11 and 25 based on population data (shown below), reflecting a ratio of roughly one ward for every 25,000 people. 

The city’s current population is about 367,000, according to the 2021 population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The last time the wards were changed in 2013, Cleveland’s population had dropped to about 375,000 and the number of council wards was reduced from 19 to 17.

How are ward boundaries determined? 

Ward boundaries are informed by census tracts, which include data on population, demographics and income but in the end are approved by council during the redistricting process. 

Council selects a consultant to redraw the districts. Alternatively, the council president can appoint the consultant. 

Once a consultant is selected, that firm will review census data and survey the community to suggest ward boundaries. The firm then presents that information to council, which approves it as legislation.

What is redistricting, and how often does it happen in Cleveland?

Redistricting, or redrawing ward boundaries, happens once a decade after the census. According to the city’s charter, the ward boundaries must be redrawn and established before the next election cycle in 2025. The city’s current population requires the number of wards to decrease from the current 17 to 15 unless legislative action is taken to change what is currently in the charter. That has to be approved by voters. 

“We want to make sure that we don’t diminish the body to the point where citizens don’t have access to government the way they need to, but we also want to make sure we’re lean enough to not be self-preserving,” Cleveland City Council President and Ward 6 representative Blaine A. Griffin said.

The early stages of redistricting, such as finding a consultant and surveying the community, will likely begin soon, he said.

Redistricting can lead to divisive political debates. Two council people are slated to lose their wards by the 2025 election, potentially pitting current council members against each other after wards are combined. In previous redistricting processes, some council members have fought tooth-and-nail to keep their wards in place.

“I compare it to a feudal system; of course lords want to keep his or her power and seat so they will argue over the data and lines drawn and how that will shift in any direction,” said Lawrence Keller, an associate professor emeritus in Cleveland State University’s public administration program. “There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation.

The process can be “contentious,” Keller said, citing instances in recent redistricting efforts where council members pushed for moving boundaries that would keep a majority of votes in their favor.

“Since council has to approve the boundaries, you can imagine the politics that can come up when you have to get a majority to vote,” Keller said.

How have ward boundaries changed over time?

Why are neighborhoods sometimes split up?

Griffin said the city attempts to keep neighborhoods as whole as possible. But sometimes  population growth or loss in certain neighborhoods makes that impossible.

“You always want to keep neighborhoods as whole as possible because people are really attached to their neighborhood, that’s what gives them a sense of community, that’s what people embrace as a built environment,” he said.

Each of Cleveland’s 34 neighborhoods has its own needs, Griffin said. The goal is to try to avoid splitting up neighborhoods–but having diverse wards is also important.

“We don’t want to create islands of wealth, and we don’t want to create islands of poverty,” he said. “It’s good to have mixed income, mixed race — I think they make a neighborhood strong and vibrant and culturally relevant.”

How can residents get involved in the redistricting process?

Council ultimately votes on the new boundaries. Residents also have some voice in the process. The consulting firm and City Council will conduct community conversations and surveys, Griffin said, but any resident wishing to speak about redistricting may voice their opinions or concerns at the weekly City Council meeting’s public comment period.

Want to participate in public comment? Register online and check out the Cleveland Documenters Guide to Public Comment.

Abbey was the service journalism reporter for Signal Cleveland through February 2023. She joined us from the Akron Beacon Journal/USA Today Network, where she was a Report for America corps member covering the City of Akron and local government.