A state commission assigned to modernize the Ohio Constitution is scheduled to report on its progress to the General Assembly by Jan. 1. Whatever else the panel does, it must develop a credible proposal to end the corrupt partisan gerrymandering that has robbed Ohioans of the power of their votes.
The Republican elected officials who control state government drew the district boundaries of Ohio’s legislature and U.S. House delegation to ensure their party’s dominance for another decade. The proportion of GOP congressional and legislative seats greatly exceeds the share of support voters gave the party in last year’s general election. Democrats engaged in similar practices when they were in control in past decades.
Gerrymandering is legal. It shouldn’t be. It promotes government gridlock and political extremism, in Columbus and Washington. It discourages partisan competition by maximizing the number of “safe” districts, especially those held by incumbents. It creates monstrosities such as the 9th U.S. House District, which hugs the Lake Erie shoreline from Toledo to Cleveland. Worst, it deprives voters of fair, effective, accountable representation.
This month, a committee of the constitutional commission approved a plan designed to inject greater bipartisanship into the reapportionment process. Under its proposal, a seven-member board — composed of the governor, the secretary of state, the state auditor, and two Republican and two Democratic members chosen by General Assembly leaders — would oversee both legislative and congressional redistricting. Those tasks now are divided between the legislature and the state Apportionment Board.
Any plan approved by the new board would require bipartisan support. The maps would not be redrawn until after the 2020 federal census, leaving the current unfair system in place for the rest of this decade and beyond. The commission proposal is similar to a resolution approved by the state Senate.
We remain skeptical that partisan politicians who created the current anti-democratic system and benefit from it can be expected to clean it up. Placing the responsibility for drawing districts in the hands of an independent, nonpartisan citizens’ commission still seems the better way to go.
But Ohio voters rejected a ballot proposal last year that would have created such a panel, and there are no efforts to revive that campaign. For better or worse, the constitutional commission is the only horse in the race at the moment.
Any fair and effective redistricting plan must include several elements. Districts must be politically competitive, and fairly representative of all voters within them. They must be compact and reflect local communities of interest.
Lawmakers would have to approve the constitutional commission’s recommendations by next August to place them before voters in the November, 2014, general election. There is no reason that the General Assembly cannot meet that timetable — unless, of course, legislators continue to place their parties’ interests ahead of their constituents’ and opt for the sleazy status quo.