Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Kill the gerrymander

The state commission charged with modernizing the Ohio Constitution is set to meet this week. The major task on its agenda remains proposing constitutional reforms to end the corrupt partisan gerrymandering that continues to steal the power of Ohioans’ votes.

The Republican elected officials who control state government have rigged the process of drawing district boundaries for Ohio’s congressional delegation and General Assembly to ensure their party’s dominance well into the next decade. An example of this anti-democratic conduct: In 2012, Ohio voters gave GOP candidates 51 percent of votes cast in U.S. House elections. But because of the way the lines are fixed, Republicans hold 75 percent of Ohio’s House seats — 12 out of 16.

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Ohio needs a better method of political districting to represent all voters fairly and equally. The first step in that process is removing it from the unchecked control of either party.

The elements of an effective, accountable system have long been clear. Political districts should be compact, keeping communities of interest together. They should avoid dividing counties and municipalities as much as possible.

They should encourage, not minimize, partisan competition. They should not protect incumbents. They must respect the rights of minority voters, not dilute their influence.

The process of drawing districts should be open to public participation, not restricted to party insiders. Simply put, the system should maximize the ability of voters to choose their representatives, not the other way around.

Ohio’s current system, by contrast, includes such grotesqueries as the 9th U.S. House District, which snakes along the Lake Erie shoreline from Toledo to Cleveland. By reducing partisan competition, gerrymandering shifts the emphasis to party primaries from general elections, often rewarding extremist candidates over centrist ones. That has to change.

A committee of the constitutional commission has proposed placing congressional and legislative redistricting in the hands of a seven-member panel composed of top state officials of both parties. Under the plan, new political maps would have to win bipartisan support.

That proposal is fairer than the current system, but it would not take effect until after the 2020 federal census, keeping the intolerable status quo in place for years. The proposal’s advocates still must make the case that partisan politicians, rather than a nonpartisan citizens’ commission, should control the process.

Ominously, committee members last month discussed basing new districts on a provision in the constitution that “district boundaries established by the preceding apportionment shall be adopted to the extent reasonably consistent” with current constitutional rules. That is precisely what should not happen.

As Samuel Gresham, Jr., president of the good-government group Common Cause Ohio said in a letter to committee members: “It does not make sense to institutionalize our highly gerrymandered lines, which are patently unfair and which you are tasked with reforming.”

Ohio Republicans have shown their repeated willingness to engage in gerrymandering and vote suppression to preserve their party’s political power. They will not end these practices voluntarily.

Two years ago, Ohio voters rejected a ballot proposal that would have created an independent commission to propose new ways to draw political districts, largely on the assurances of elected officials and interest groups that the constitutional modernization commission was better suited to that task.

Commission members will soon show whether voters made the right decision — or whether the commission represents another obstacle to reform.

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