Tuesday, May 22, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

David Kushma

Ohioans must vote in their interests -- not pols'

Will you vote this fall? Good for you.

Do you expect your vote to matter? Of course you do.

But that's an iffy proposition, unless you vote to fight back against politicians' efforts to advance themselves by marginalizing you.

In November, Ohioans will elect members of Congress and the General Assembly from districts drawn by the Republican Party, for the Republican Party. In one of the nation's most closely contested battleground states, the GOP is poised to grab as many as 12 of Ohio's 16 U.S. House seats. Prospects in the state House and Senate aren't quite as skewed, but the playing field isn't level there either.

The 9th U.S. House District, previously centered in metro Toledo, now stretches all the way along the Lake Erie shoreline to Cleveland. Similar grotesqueries across the state aim to maximize the number of winning Republican districts, in part by packing as many non-Republican voters as possible into the smallest number of districts.

The inevitable effects of Ohio's gerrymandering: less electoral competition, more ideological polarization, more extreme partisanship, more legislative gridlock, greater protection of incumbents, and poorer political representation of every Ohioan -- Republican, Democrat, and independent.

You aren't picking your lawmakers. They're picking, or discarding, you.

Ohio Republicans gained control of the mapmaking process because they now dominate the legislature, which approves changes in congressional districts required every 10 years after the federal census. Republican officeholders also call the shots these days on the state Apportionment Board, which revises the boundaries of legislative districts. Both bodies drew maps calculated to maintain lopsided, unrepresentative GOP advantages in the Statehouse and the congressional delegation for another decade.

I can hear the partisans and cynics: "Yeah, well, if the Democrats were in charge, they'd do the same thing." You bet they would. That's why neither party should own the keys to the reapportionment bus. It's an invitation to corruption.

Ohio voters have a better alternative this year. A proposal on the statewide ballot, Issue 2, would amend the state constitution to place redistricting in the hands of an independent, state-funded citizens' commission. The 12-member panel would include equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats, and independents.

The commission would do its work in public, in contrast to the secret back-room machinations that produced the current maps. It would draw districts according to basic principles of fairness and objectivity: competitiveness, compactness, preservation of communities of interest, and respect for county and municipal boundaries. The panel's new maps would take effect for the 2014 elections.

Elected officials and candidates who are directly affected by the reapportionment process couldn't serve on the commission. Neither could lobbyists, party officials, or big campaign contributors.

The Ohio Republican Party wants no part of such talk of impartiality, transparency, and citizen participation. GOP leaders, and the special-interest lobbies that bankroll the party, are fighting Issue 2 with everything they've got. They make the incredible claim that the proposal lacks the voter accountability of the current gerrymandering schemes.

They dismiss supporters of the ballot proposal -- including such established nonpartisan good-government groups as the Ohio chapters of the League of Women Voters and Common Cause -- as stooges of Big Labor and the Democratic Party. Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett called Voters First, Issue 2's chief advocacy group, a "snake in the grass."

"We're getting so much mud slung at us," says Ann Henkener, a redistricting specialist for the League of Women Voters and treasurer of Voters First. "If the unions are willing to help us, that's great. But this is our plan -- we filed our [ballot] language last March.

"Ohio's become a laughingstock across the United States" because of the blatant rigging of its political maps, Ms. Henkener told me last week. "There's no perfect plan, but ours is a huge improvement over what we have now."

The chief objection to Issue 2 that isn't overtly partisan addresses the roles it assigns to judges. A group of state appeals court judges would screen the pool of candidates for the redistricting commission, to make sure they're qualified to serve. If the commission couldn't agree on new maps, or if it were challenged in court, the Ohio Supreme Court would have final authority to select the maps.

The Ohio State Bar Association, judges' groups, and other critics say these provisions would violate the doctrine of separation of government powers and expose judges to potential conflicts of interest. Surely we don't want our arbiters of justice soiling their hands with partisan politics and special-interest influence peddling, do we?

Gag me with a gavel. In November, we'll elect three of the seven justices on the Supreme Court. Each candidate in these races is running with the backing of one of the two major parties. And the high court already has the authority to resolve redistricting disputes.

Jim Slagle, a trial lawyer from Marion and a leader of the pro-Issue 2 campaign, notes that judges in other states are far more actively involved in the selection of redistricting panel members than they would be here. Ohio judges routinely appoint officials to government boards and commissions, he adds.

Other opponents of Issue 2 argue that, golly, if both parties in Columbus could just agree to work together, they could deliver an equitable bipartisan plan. But we've seen for decades that the redistricting process isn't susceptible to compromise -- it's winner take all. That's what happens when you allow either party to control it.

Polls suggest that voters who get an accurate description of Issue 2 tend to support it. But a week before early voting begins, a large share of Ohioans say they remain undecided.

"The real issue is that people feel their votes don't count," Mr. Slagle said. "The election is decided by those who draw the lines. Most people realize that's just wrong."

It's pretty simple: Voters should choose our representatives, not the reverse. It's time for Ohioans to remind the pols in Columbus and Washington of that.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com

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