Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Reform made simple

No one would put a fox in charge of a henhouse, or ask a wolf to guard a flock of sheep. Yet Ohio lawmakers cannot conceive of a redistricting formula that does not keep them in charge of drawing the state's political boundaries.

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The latest proposed legislation to suffer from this fatal flaw at least has the virtue of bipartisanship. But it depends on an overly complex super-majority vote requirement and a questionable penalty system to encourage cooperation.

The plan calls for a redistricting commission composed of the members of the Ohio Apportionment Board -- the governor, secretary of state, state auditor, state House speaker, and state Senate president -- and a leader of the minority party in each legislative chamber. That is, the way to fix the process is to expand it.

The bill's sponsors recognize the real problem: Democratic and Republican lawmakers place partisan advantage ahead of drawing districts that would benefit all Ohioans. So they would force compromise with a mandate that legislative and congressional district maps must be approved by five of the seven members of the new commission, including two from the minority party.

Failure to reach such agreement would require voters to choose among three maps -- Republican, Democratic, and compromise versions. The deadlocked political parties would be punished with 10 years of nonpartisan primaries.

There is a better way. It is elegant in its simplicity but evidently doomed, because it would exclude politics from the redistricting process and put the emphasis on voters -- where it belongs.

Last year, several groups that advocate good government sponsored a competition to create legislative and congressional districts that would be compact and competitive. The winning maps increased the number of competitive districts in the 99-member Ohio House from 30 to 35, and in the 33-member Senate from nine to 14.

That came a lot closer to reflecting Ohio's political balance than the legislative map drawn by the Republican-controlled Apportionment Board. And the contest-winning congressional map was a thing of compact beauty compared to the gerrymandered monstrosity that was put together behind closed doors by Republican leaders with the influence of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.

The latter map splits Toledo into two U.S. House districts and stretches the new 9th District all the way to Cleveland. The contest map would have kept all Toledoans -- and all other Lucas County residents -- in the same district.

The sponsors of the new redistricting bill are right about one thing: Now is the time for a state constitutional amendment that would change how political lines get drawn from now on.

No one can say for sure which party will hold a majority on the Apportionment Board or in the General Assembly when the next Census takes place in 2020, although the new maps give the GOP a big advantage. But it's just barely possible that current lawmakers may be inclined to support real redistricting reform.

Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, advised the would-be reformers to keep their plan simple. They came up short because they tried to tame rather than eliminate partisanship.

The best course still would be to hand the redistricting process over to an independent, nonpartisan group that will use computer technology to draw maps that accurately reflect Ohio's political landscape, instead of subverting it.

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