Saturday, Oct 21, 2017
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Editorials

FEATURED EDITORIAL

Restoring democracy in Ohio

GOV. John Kasich insisted recently that Ohio must be “aggressive” in developing a better way to draw the map of the state’s U.S. House districts. His assertion might surprise Ohioans who remember Mr. Kasich’s participation in the grotesque gerrymandering of the congressional delegation and General Assembly that followed the 2010 Census, which unfairly empowered the governor’s Republican Party.

Still, if Governor Kasich’s commitment to abolishing partisan gerrymandering and enhancing political competition is as sincere as it appears to be, he can play a vital role in restoring electoral democracy to this state, at least on this issue. Leaders of the GOP-controlled legislature need to pay attention.

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Republicans hold 12 of Ohio’s 16 seats in the U.S. House, even though GOP congressional candidates barely won a statewide majority of votes cast in 2012. The party achieved a landslide victory in the 2014 election, but even so, its representation in the House delegation remains grossly out of proportion to its support among Ohio voters. Many congressional incumbents, notably former House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, leaned on Statehouse politicians to maintain the corrupt imbalance.

Because of its partisan control of both the legislature and the state Apportionment Board, the GOP can dictate the shape of Ohio’s political maps (Democrats have enjoyed similar advantages in the past, although not recently). Mapmakers have crammed as many Democratic voters as they could into the smallest number of districts, while making Republican districts effectively immune to general-election challenges. 

As Mr. Kasich noted late last month, the creation of such “safe” districts makes partisan primaries the elections that count. This forces lawmakers of both parties to stake out more-extreme positions to fend off primary opponents. The results in Congress: polarization, gridlock, and an inability to achieve bipartisan compromise. 

Gerrymandering also divides local communities and counties; the 9th District, represented by veteran Democrat Marcy Kaptur, stretches from Toledo to Cleveland. The current process disfranchises minority voters and excludes citizens from the map-drawing exercise.

Ohio voters took matters into their own hands last November when they overwhelmingly approved a statewide initiative — placed on the ballot by state lawmakers of both parties — that beginning next decade will improve the apportionment process for the General Assembly, making it more representative of all Ohioans. Similar reform now must come to the congressional delegation; a bipartisan bill that would enable voters to address that question this year is before the legislature.

But Republican leaders of the General Assembly say they want to see how the new legislative reapportionment plan works out before they contemplate changes to congressional redistricting. That phony excuse should fool no one, but if it persists, it could delay reform until after the 2030 Census. That’s absurd.

Governor Kasich’s influence can prove especially useful now. He could explain to leaders of his party — in terms they will understand — that further delay on redistricting reform is unacceptable. He can lobby them to approve the proposed amendment to the state constitution that is before them. And if they refuse, he could work around them by backing a petition drive to get the question on the ballot.

According to a new University of Akron poll, one-fourth of Ohio voters say they are thoroughly disgusted with American politics — a rate that has tripled since 2008. Many Ohioans express particular contempt for political incumbents. Even the densest, most self-serving, most partisan Statehouse or Capitol Hill pol can’t ignore that message. 

Mr. Kasich is right: Redistricting reform is good for Ohio. In 2016, the governor, the legislature, and — if necessary — Ohio voters must follow through. 

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