Ohio voters will get the chance this fall to wrest the process of drawing the state's political districts away from the Republican Party, which now controls that system to its own advantage. Although the ballot proposal that aims to reform the means of reapportionment is imperfect, its drawbacks are outweighed by the prospect of a fairer, less partisan, and more small-d democratic way to define political representation.
Ohio's U.S. House and General Assembly districts generally are adjusted every 10 years to account for population shifts measured in the federal Census. Because Republicans dominate statewide offices and the legislature, they had a free hand to redraw these boundaries, starting with this year's elections, to aim to keep control of the congressional delegation and Statehouse for another decade.
They exploited that advantage to the fullest. They reshaped 12 of the state's 16 congressional districts to favor GOP candidates. To cram as many Democratic voters as possible into the 9th District, making other districts more Republican, map-makers stretched it from Toledo all the way to Cleveland. Legislative redistricting was similarly lopsided.
Such gerrymandering discourages electoral competition, unfairly protects incumbents, and tends to push candidates of both parties to ideological extremes. That diminishes voter choice and enhances gridlock in government.
To respond to such ills, a nonpartisan coalition called Ohio Voters First is placing a proposal on the November ballot. It would amend the state constitution to assign the job of drawing political districts to an independent citizens' commission named by state appeals court judges.
State and federal politicians, lobbyists, and big campaign donors are excluded from the commission, which would be charged with making districts more compact, competitive, and representative of all Ohioans. The maps the panel produces would take effect for the 2014 election.
It hasn't been a smooth process. The coalition initially failed to file enough valid petition signatures of voters with the Secretary of State's office to get its plan on the ballot. A last-minute solicitation blitz put the campaign over the top, barely, last week.
Voters First acknowledges that much of its funding comes from labor unions and other Democrat-friendly lobbies that worked hard and spent freely last year to persuade voters to repeal the GOP-backed Senate Bill 5, which would have restricted the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. That caused Bob Bennett, the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, to label the coalition a "special-interest snake in the grass."
But the reform coalition is headed by the Ohio chapters of the League of Women Voters and Common Cause -- groups that have earned their good-government stripes and cannot be dismissed as partisan fronts. The chief opponent of the ballot plan, a group called Protect Your Vote Ohio, has not disclosed who is supporting and funding it. And the vehemence of Mr. Bennett's rhetoric seems to suggest more than anything else how threatened the state GOP feels by this challenge to its unaccountable, secretive power to rig the redistricting process.
More seriously, the Ohio State Bar Association said last week it also opposes the ballot initiative. It objects to the plan's provisions requiring judges to select redistricting commission members, and possibly forcing the state Supreme Court to approve new maps if the panel cannot agree. The bar says the plan would violate separation of government powers and involve the courts in partisan politics.
These are credible objections. But the notion that judges are insulated from party politics now is a polite fiction; the parties slate nominees for voters' election to the Supreme Court. It's to be hoped that judges would be less likely to engage in overt partisanship than the current redistricting system encourages.
Neither party should be allowed to control Ohio's reapportionment process. The Blade will take a formal position closer to Election Day on how well the Voters First proposal would deliver the change this state needs and its voters deserve.
For now, though, what's most important is that Ohioans have a choice. Voters who are comfortable with the GOP gerrymander can opt for the status quo. Voters of all parties, or no party, who would prefer to pick their representatives rather than the other way around should get the opportunity to choose a different path.
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