Congress does almost nothing these days, while Ohio’s General Assembly does lots of things that are bad for the state and its people. In both instances, this behavior is enabled by gerrymandering of legislative districts that places party politics, ideological extremism, and special-interest influence ahead of fair, effective, accountable representation.
Only an amendment to the Ohio Constitution can shut down this rigged game. The bipartisan commission that is charged with updating the constitution needs to make restoration of electoral democracy a priority for the state.
In 2011, Ohio Republicans exploited their control of state government when they revised the district maps of the General Assembly and the state’s U.S. House delegation — a mandate that arises every 10 years after the federal census. They allowed politicians to choose their voters rather than the other way around, working to ensure their party would keep its stranglehold on the legislature and congressional delegation for a decade.
That exercise in distortion paid off last November. While voters re-elected President Obama and Sen. Sherrod Brown, both Democrats, by comfortable margins at the top of the statewide ballot, Republicans won large majorities in the state House and Senate, and took 12 of Ohio’s 16 U.S. House seats.
Just by studying the partisan composition of the districts, political analysts correctly predicted the outcomes of each U.S. House race in Ohio, every contested state Senate race, and all but two of the 99 state House elections. These races provided about as much general-election competition as the old Soviet Union did.
Gerrymandering is wrong and anti-democratic, whether Democrats or Republicans engage in it. There are probably enough legislative votes to enact Republican Gov. John Kasich’s proposal to expand enrollment in Ohio’s Medicaid program. But Republican legislative leaders are blocking a vote on this vital initiative.
They fear its passage would cause a slew of Obamacare haters to challenge incumbent lawmakers in next year’s GOP primary. Given the way legislative districts are drawn, that’s a greater concern for the party than the general election.
In the U.S. House, the district represented by Democrat Marcy Kaptur, previously centered in the Toledo area, now snakes along the Lake Erie shoreline all the way to Cleveland. Such a bizarre configuration makes a mockery of effective political representation. Similar gerrymandering across the country helps perpetuate the gridlock in Washington between the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-majority Senate and Obama Administration.
A proposed initiative on last year’s statewide ballot would have taken the redistricting process out of the hands of the parties and assigned it to an independent citizens’ commission. But voters who were confronted with a long and sometimes perplexing general-election ballot rejected the proposal.
The reform task now falls to the constitutional modernization commission. Members of the commission heard testimony last week from Ann Henkener, the redistricting specialist for the League of Women Voters of Ohio, and Richard Gunther, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.
Both witnesses offered sound, self-evident proposals for reform. Among them:
● Representation in Congress and the General Assembly should fairly reflect voters’ partisan preferences.
● The mapmaking process should maximize, not eliminate, competition between the parties.
● Districts should be compact, not elongated, and keep counties and communities together as much as possible.
● Redistricting should be transparent and open to public participation.
Professor Gunther called the current map of Ohio’s U.S. House delegation “about as bad as can be achieved … one of the worst in the democratic world.” He observed that any party in power will game the reapportionment system to its advantage until the state constitution requires fairness.
The modernization commission must work to restore political power and democracy to Ohio voters. Accountability and choice in the drawing of legislative districts are necessary to do that.