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Published: Tuesday, 10/25/2005

Redistricting plan touted as mandate for competition

BY JIM TANKERSLEY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

Last of three parts

Ohio's last truly competitive congressional election came in 1996, when U.S. Reps. Ted Strickland, Dennis Kucinich, and Bob Ney all eked out wins by 5 percentage points or less.

In the decade since, only three of the state's 74 U.S. House races have come down to single digits.

Voters could try to change that this fall, by passing a ballot measure that would force Ohio to prize competition for congressional seats more than any state in the union.

But what else would they change in the process?

If Ohioans approve Issue 4 on Nov. 8, they would shift redistricting from politicians to an independent commission with a mandate to produce competitive elections.

Opponents and political analysts warn they could also reduce voter oversight of congressional boundaries, dilute political clout for minorities, and divide the state into stretched or contorted districts.

"If people look at the maps that would result from these convoluted rules, hardly anybody would be for it," said U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor (R, Old Fort), one of several GOP congressmen who opposes the measures on those grounds.

Another worry for Mr. Gillmor and his caucus colleagues, which the congressmen rarely vocalize, is this: If Issue 4 passes, it could threaten Republicans' hold on the U.S. House.

Republicans enjoy a 30-seat advantage over Democrats in the House. Analysts consider fewer than 30 seats up for grabs next year.

Issue 4 could create an estimated 10 newly competitive districts in Ohio, many of them with Republican incumbents - giving Democrats more targets for a House takeover.

"It could give the Democrats a chance to pick up at least a couple, two or three, congressional seats," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. "Now they need 15. So three would be very good" for their chances.

State legislators currently draw Ohio's congressional boundaries, as they do in most states. Republicans who control the Ohio Capitol have carved 12 "safe" GOP seats out of Ohio's 18-member House delegation - a 2-1 advantage in a state that split almost evenly between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry in last year's presidential election.

Issue 4 would transfer redistricting duties to a five-member commission. Two appeals court judges - one nominated by a Republican, the other by a Democrat - would select the first two members. Those members would then pick the three others from public applications; lobbyists and politicians would be ineligible to serve.

Opponents say that removes voters' say over redistricting. "You lose your vote," said David Hopcraft, a spokesman for Ohio First, which is fighting Issue 4.

Other states have turned to commissions for redistricting, with mixed results.

Washington state residents voted in 1983 to hand redistricting to an independent panel.

It drew its first maps in 1992. In the four elections that followed, 15 of the state's 36 congressional races were decided by 10 percentage points or less, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy, which advocates redistricting reform.

But Washington's three elections this decade produced only one competitive House race each.

Arizona voters installed a redistricting commission in 2000, after a promotional campaign that included $600,000 from the chairman of the state Democratic Party. When the independent commission created only two swing congressional seats, Democrats sued. The case remains in court.

In both states, competition is one of several factors commissioners consider when drawing lines. Ohio would make it the top priority.

Issue 4 would implement a mathematical formula for scoring districts' competitiveness - the tighter the seats, the better the score. Commissioners would be required to adopt the highest-scoring map submitted, with slight leeway, provided it meets constitutional muster and doesn't splinter counties between several districts.

Adopting those standards would put Ohio on "the bleeding edge" of competitive redistricting nationwide, said Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert at George Mason University.

Proponents and opponents bicker over how geographically pretty competition would be. Ohio First released a highly competitive map last month that included districts that snake across nearly the width of the state. Reform Ohio Now, which backs Issue 4, produced more compact - and it says more competitive - maps.

Opponents also say Issue 4 could reduce the influence of minorities, particularly blacks, by breaking their voting bloc among several districts. Proponents say Issue 4 could actually enable three or more black congressmen to win election in Ohio, up from one now.

"This is what the opponents of reform intentionally ignore," said Steve Fought, a Reform Ohio Now spokesman.

If Issue 4 passes, a commission could draw more competitive lines by 2008. At least one national expert thinks Ohio voters could see tighter elections before then.

Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said a year of scandal in Ohio's Republican Party could make GOP congressional incumbents vulnerable - even those who routinely win in blowouts.

"We may see a very competitive Ohio in 2006," Ms. Walter said. "We may not have to wait."

Washington Bureau Chief Ann McFeatters contributed to this report.

Contact Jim Tankersley at:

jtankersley@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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