THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Voters overwhelmingly backed a plan to reform Ohio’s hyper-partisan process for drawing legislative districts, and supporters are already looking ahead to passing the same reforms for congressional districts next year.
“Today’s win was an important first step, but it only got us halfway there,” said Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “We need to take these new anti-gerrymandering rules that Issue 1 applied to the General Assembly and extend them to congressional districts, which are even more gerrymandered.”
Issue 1, which will change the legislative redistricting process starting in 2021, when the lines are scheduled to be drawn again, won with 71 percent of the vote, according to final, unofficial results.
“Ohio voters can do amazing things when they work together. Let’s work together to reform the congressional map,” said Sandy Theis, executive director of ProgressOhio.
The new process will attempt to curtail the partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts that critics say has led to too many non-competitive districts, artificially protects the majority party’s power, and creates a system where incumbents have more fear of being challenged from the far flanks of their parties, causing them to govern in a more partisan manner.
Former Rep. Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican and co-chairman of the official committee to pass Issue 1, said it was a satisfying end to a 16-month process of finding a plan to which both parties could agree.
“Obviously there’s a lot of skepticism about government, but if you work these issues through and get everybody involved, you can solve some of these issues,” he said.
The current five-member redistricting panel, which includes the governor, secretary of state, auditor and two legislative appointees, will be expanded to seven members with two additional legislative selections.
If at least two minority party members vote to approve the new maps, they take effect for 10 years. If not, then the maps must be redrawn again in four years.
Supporters say the issue also creates clearer rules for drawing districts that will limit gerrymandering and give the Ohio Supreme court clearer guidance if a map is challenged. It also says the panel “shall attempt to draw” a map that does not primarily favor a political party, and corresponds closely to the statewide preferences of voters.
“We are thrilled with the passage of Issue 1… because we expect it will lead to a larger number of more competitive districts at the Statehouse level,” said Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper. “In the long term, this should lead to a legislature far more in the mainstream of Ohio – as opposed to the current extreme group that occupies the Statehouse.”
Davis added: “Ohio voters sent a clear message today. They want districts to be fair and the winners to be determined by the voters.”
Ohio voters in 2005 and 2012 overwhelmingly rejected redistricting reform efforts. But unlike those plans – citizen initiatives led by groups including the League of Women Voters of Ohio – Issue 1 had support from both political parties and no organized opposition.
Jai Chabria, a senior aide to Gov. John Kasich, tweeted a message to the media: “Ohio Republican Leaders deserve a ton of credit for breaking the cycle and potentially giving up power.”
Supporters say it’s time to put the same process in place for congressional districts.
Sens. Frank LaRose, R-Copley, and Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, have proposed a congressional redistricting plan that largely mirrors the process that voters were approving for legislative districts. They have presented it to the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission and hope to see legislative action in time to have it placed in the November 2016 ballot.
But Republican legislative leaders have, thus far, shown less enthusiasm for changing the congressional redistricting process, which is controlled by the House and Senate. Congressional leaders, including former Speaker John Boehner, have opposed a change and have given heavy sums to legislative Republicans to help ensure favorable districts continue.
Republican legislative committees collected nearly $600,000 from GOP congressional candidates in 2010 and 2011 as the new map was being drawn.
Republicans control 12 of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts, and the races have generally been uncompetitive since lines were drawn in 2011. Examples of heavy congressional gerrymandering are abundant.
The “snake along the lake” district links downtown Toledo and Cleveland and is so narrow that at one point it’s connected only by a bridge. Rep. Steve Stivers’ district includes both Upper Arlington and Athens, and Summit County is sliced into four districts.
Asked about congressional redistricting, Huffman, who is running for a Senate seat next year, said there are different kinds of issues there but he hopes a solution can be reached.
Issue 1 “shows that even complicated, partisan issues are solvable if you get the right people in the room and people work in good faith,” he said.