COLUMBUS -- When did the League of Women Voters of Ohio become a "special-interest snake in the grass," in the words of the head of the Ohio Republican Party?
When it aligned itself with Democrats and GOP foes to champion a constitutional amendment, on the Nov. 6 ballot, to take away lawmakers' power to redraw congressional and state legislative districts.
"They are just another special-interest snake in the grass, and sadly, they took a noble cause and twisted it for partisan gain," state GOP Chairman Bob Bennett said recently about alleged cheating in the signature-gathering process by the Ohio Voters First coalition, of which the league is a member.
The strong rhetoric is an early example of how nasty the fight ahead could get over an inherently partisan political process that many voters spend little time thinking about.
"I was reading some information about the 1981 campaign, and there was a quote that the League of Women Voters was prostituting itself during that campaign," said Ann Henkener, a member of the league's board of directors. "I guess being called 'snakes in the grass' is a step back."
That 1981 attempt to change how Ohio draws districts was soundly defeated by voters, and another attempt in 2005 met a similar fate.
Redistricting is a complicated issue, but the political stakes are high for the party in charge at the moment. If voters approve the constitutional amendment certified this week for the ballot, recently enacted Republican-drawn maps designed to solidify GOP congressional, Ohio Senate, and Ohio House majorities would be thrown out and redrawn in time for the 2014 elections.
Going forward, the amendment would hand that power to a new commission directly or indirectly appointed by appellate judges. District competitiveness would be a primary goal for the new commission as it redraws future legislative maps, typically once a decade after a U.S. Census.
And there's the question of what effect the ballot measure might have on voter turnout in a key presidential election battleground state. The same labor-union and Democratic Party forces behind last year's campaign to repeal Senate Bill 5 -- the Republican-passed, anti-collective bargaining law -- are behind the Voters First amendment.
"This is a labor-backed, union-backed, Democratic Party proposal," Mr. Bennett said this week. "It is not nonpartisan. They are hiding behind the League of Women Voters, and are trying to make it look as if it is nonpartisan.
"Look at the funding source," he said. "It's coming from unions, the Democratic Party, and its sources. I understand people are upset at the current system, but this is not the way to do it. … The league has chosen to get involved in a partisan attack on a system, and they have to wear the label also."
The state GOP chairman downplays the Voters First issue's potential effect on the presidential race, but if Democrats come out in the numbers they did last November to defeat Senate Bill 5, it can't hurt the Obama campaign's efforts to win Ohio again.
"This is going to be fought in the trenches," Mr. Bennett said. "I don't see much in the way of TV availability by the time the presidential and congressional races get through. … There's not going to be much room for issue development."
It will instead come down to the ground game: Each party's get-out-the-vote effort.
Turnout called key
The Ohio Democratic Party has endorsed the ballot issue, but state Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern said no decision has been made about the party's role in the campaign for its passage. He predicted the ballot issue's fate will depend on who wins the presidential election, not the other way around.
"This is going to be one of the largest election turnouts in recent memory," Mr. Redfern said. "If Obama wins, this issue passes. If Romney wins, this issue fails. Voters are smart. Why is Bob Bennett so exercised about this issue? It's those fingernails scraping on the desk of power as he's being removed from that office."
John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said the ballot issue could tap into sentiment reflected in polls that voters are unhappy with government, particularly Congress.
"It's hard to imagine that the labor unions and progressive groups wouldn't be pretty energized already, given the choice between President Obama and Mitt Romney," he said. "But when they go about the business of mobilizing others, it gives them one more thing to talk about. I don't think that redistricting has quite the same attraction as labor unions or collective bargaining, or is as powerful as same-sex marriage was in 2004 … but it could attract people who care about good government and are disturbed with the political process," he said.
The League of Women Voters is the highest-profile member of Ohio Voters First, which also consists of left-leaning groups such as Progress Ohio, Common Cause, and Washington-based America Votes. The coalition has relied heavily on financial and volunteer support from We Are Ohio, the largely labor and Democratic-backed organization that fought back Senate Bill 5 last year.
Ohio Voters First has received nearly $2 million in cash so far, and other help, from many of the unions behind We Are Ohio. But the league itself was not involved in the Senate Bill 5 fight and did not take a position on the voter referendum.
Ms. Henkener dismissed suggestion that the league's redistricting stance makes it partisan. She noted that the league aligned in the past with Republicans in another effort to reform the redistricting process, and has stood with Democrats and Republicans alike on similar issues in other states.
"The good-government groups are nonprofits who don't have a lot of funding," Ms. Henkener said. "What we have is our good name. We don't have the ability to get the number of signatures needed and to wage a campaign when they are going to be well-funded on the other side. We're happy to have people who have the same goals we do, who want to get into the fray, and who want to fix this problem."
She said the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot is the league's proposal, similar to what it espoused in 2009 when it held a public map-drawing contest to make the point that districts could be drawn that would be competitive, compact, and representatively fair.
At that time, Democrats controlled the Ohio House, Republicans controlled the Ohio Senate, and elections for key offices such as governor that serve on the state legislative apportionment board were still a year away. No one knew who would control the process in 2011.
"The league has been trying to reform redistricting for 40 years," Ms. Henkener said. "This is our best opportunity so far to change the system to really make the votes of Ohioans count again."
Mr. Bennett argued that Ohio should wait to act until after a current bipartisan legislative committee studying the issue completes its work by year's end. He said the requirements of the Voters First proposal, particularly a requirement that districts be as politically competitive as possible, could endanger a redrawn African-American majority congressional district connecting inner-city Cleveland with inner-city Akron, as well as a new Columbus-based district that is expected to elect a minority this fall.
"Competitiveness is a fine thing in theory, but if you take out communities of interest to make them competitive, such as taking an inner-city district and adding Sylvania or Maumee, you may get a competitive district, but you don't have commonality," he said.
Chris Maloney, Ohio spokesman for presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, said the campaign would have no comment on the proposed constitutional amendment and instead referred questions to the state GOP.
The Obama campaign was involved with a Democratic attempt earlier this year to put a GOP-passed election-reform law on the ballot, a move thwarted by Republicans when they voted to repeal their own law. The Obama campaign had used the issue as a fund-raising tool.
But there has not been the same kind of overt involvement by the Obama campaign with the Nov. 6 redistricting referendum.
When asked for comment, an Obama campaign official in Ohio said simply, "Our primary focus is on building our organization and drawing the firm contrasts between the President's forward vision of creating an economy built to last from the middle class out, while Mitt Romney would rather reward the wealthy at the expense of the middle class."
The Ohio Ballot Board is expected to meet next week to frame the question voters will see on the ballot.
Currently, congressional districts are redrawn by a bill in the General Assembly and signed by the governor, just like any other law. The final map created last year, on paper, appears to create 12 congressional districts that Republicans would be expected to win and four urban-based districts that favor Democrats.
Opponents of the current system point to the new 9th District, which snakes some 100 miles along the Lake Erie shoreline from Toledo to Cleveland, as an example of what they're trying to fix.
Ohio's 99 House and 33 Senate districts are redrawn by an apportionment panel consisting of the governor, secretary of state, auditor, and two lawmakers of opposite parties.
Under the Voters First proposal, both processes would be replaced by a single Ohio Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission, whose 12 members, in a complicated process, would be appointed directly or indirectly by a bipartisan group of appellate judges.
Certain people -- including elected and nonelected government officials, lobbyists, campaign donors who give more than $5,000 over two years, and their immediate family members -- would be barred from serving on the commission.
The commission would have to adopt a map that, without violating federal voting-rights law, splits the fewest municipalities, contains the most competitive districts, best represents the political leanings of the state as a whole, and creates the most geographically compact districts.
A vote of seven of the 12 commissioners would be needed to adopt a map, and the process allows members of the general public to submit their own maps for consideration.
The Ohio State Bar Association has come out in opposition to the ballot issue, arguing that having judges appoint and vet panel members would politicize the judiciary. It also opposes a provision that would have the Ohio Supreme Court pick the final map if the panel can't reach a decision. Currently, the high court gets involved only if there's a legal challenge to a map.
Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican who unsuccessfully pushed for redistricting reform while in the General Assembly, said Voters First could end up undermining the reform effort.
"This has the potential to be just as bad or worse than the current system for different reasons, not the same reasons but a whole new set of reasons," he said. "It's time that both political parties stop trying to end-run the process, and sit down with each other to try to do something that's fair and they can agree upon.
"The reformers run a great risk with what they're doing here, because I think they're going to lose, and when they lose they're going to undermine the chance to really get this done in a bipartisan manner," Mr. Husted said.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.