ISN'T it time voters were the big winners in Ohio elections?
A new proposal, if passed by the General Assembly and Ohio voters, will end partisan gerrymandering of state legislative districts. It will establish a fair, objective, and transparent process for redrawing district boundaries. It will ensure that voters' choices, not politicians', will prevail in elections.
The resolution, to be sponsored by state Rep. Tom Letson (D., Warren), is grounded in three fundamental concepts:
•Elected officials who approve legislative district boundaries should represent the interests of all Ohioans, not just the interests of their political parties.
•They should make determinations based on fair, objective, measurable criteria.
•The process should be open and transparent.
None of these concepts has guided redistricting in Ohio in the past. The party that dominated the positions of governor, auditor, and secretary of state during the once-a-decade redistricting process historically determined legislative boundaries in winner-take-all displays of partisanship.
Provisions for keeping counties, townships, and cities together and for drawing compact districts have been in place for 40 years. But they haven't been strictly followed.
As a result, Ohio has districts such as Sen. Mark Wagoner's, which includes Erie and Wood counties, most of Ottawa County, and the western parts of Lucas County. Our state also has a highly polarized legislature.
A resolution sponsored by Sen. Jon Husted (R., Kettering), which is pending in the House, would create a bipartisan board to produce districts that more closely reflect Ohio's political composition.
This would be a vast improvement over the current system. But the proposal has only general requirements for keeping counties and cities together and achieving compactness. It adds competitiveness as an afterthought.
Like Sen. Husted's bill, Rep. Letson's plan envisions a seven-member bipartisan commission requiring minority-party agreement for decisions. But it also includes strict, objective, and measurable requirements for drawing districts. It requires an open, transparent decision-making process.
The Letson plan proposes that the redistricting commission determine district boundaries based on maps submitted by the public and judged mathematically by how closely they meet four criteria. These criteria were used in a public redistricting competition last year, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and others and administered by the Secretary of State.
The competition demonstrated that Ohio can have districts that are compact, maintain communities of interest, are competitive, and reflect Ohioans' overall political preferences.
Two of the criteria address community representation:
•Geographical compactness, or the "look" of a district, minimizes bizarrely shaped and geographically unwieldy districts.
•Maintaining communities of interest keeps cities and counties together in a district. Thus, voters' shared community interests aren't diluted by being divided among districts.
To elect representatives who more closely reflect the political values of Ohioans, two additional criteria are needed:
•Competitiveness makes it possible for voters to hold elected representatives accountable. It encourages our representatives to work on behalf of the majority of their constituents, not just those of one party.
•Fairness in representation means that our representatives accurately reflect Ohio's overall political composition, rather than being skewed by gerrymandering to favor a political party. If Ohio continues to be closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, our representatives should also be closely divided.
The reforms proposed in Rep. Letson's plan would end the overly partisan gerrymandering that has plagued Ohio politics for decades. In its place would be a system to improve democracy in Ohio by enabling voters to choose their officeholders, rather than officeholders choosing their voters.
The legislature should act immediately on this important issue, so it can appear on the May, 2010, ballot. If we don't do this now, we won't have another chance for fair, representative redistricting until 2021.
That's a long time to wait to see whether voters will finally win an election.
Meg G. Flack is president of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.