BECAUSE of an unusual alignment of the political stars, Ohio has its best opportunity in decades to reform the way legislative and congressional districts are drawn. But lawmakers will have to act quickly.
Currently, legislative redistricting is carried out every 10 years by a five-member board consisting of the governor, secretary of state, auditor, and majority leaders of the Ohio House and Senate.
Historically, whichever party controlled the majority of these offices was able to redraw legislative districts in its favor, perpetuating one-party rule for decades at a time.
But as the 2010 election cycle approaches, neither Democrats nor Republicans are feeling too secure in their ability to win at least two of the three statewide offices represented on the apportionment board.
So at least for the moment, it is in each of their interests to prevent the other party from being able to set the rules.
Last year, the Ohio Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Kettering Republican Jon Husted - himself a candidate for Ohio secretary of state - to scrap the current, highly partisan system for a seven-member board (adding the minority leaders from the House and Senate) and requiring that redrawn districts be approved by at least five votes, including two from the minority party.
Senator Husted's proposal would have congressional districts drawn by the same board as well, instead of the General Assembly.
Mr. Husted's proposed constitutional amendment has several weaknesses. The resolution tries to keep communities together and encourage compact districts when feasible, a lovely term but open to interpretation and difficult to enforce, and gives only lip service to forming competitive districts.
The current system, bad as it is, has provisions to limit the splitting of counties, cities, and townships. Those provisions have been largely ignored for more than 40 years. There is little to persuade us that Senator Husted's plan wouldn't simply replace one-party dominance with a lot of horse trading that would result in many of the same safe districts.
In the House, Rep. Tom Letson (D., Warren) has agreed to introduce an alternative resolution supported by the League of Women Voters of Ohio that would fix some of the problems in the Husted proposal by requiring that the seven-member panel choose from among five redistricting proposals solicited through a public competition.
The top plans in the competition would be chosen for how well they meet four criteria: reducing county and municipal fragments, compactness, competitiveness, and representational fairness.
We have favored reform that would take the drawing of legislative districts out of partisan hands. Mr. Letson's proposal, while not perfect (and not yet completed), would go a long way toward meeting that goal.
But it must be passed soon by the House and Senate to meet a Feb. 3 deadline for constitutional amendments to be included on the May 4 primary ballot.
If Democrats and Republicans are serious about reform, they will approve Mr. Letson's resolution, giving Ohioans a chance to vote for more representative government.
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