By Keary McCarthy
Before we get too distracted by the hype of the 2016 presidential election, let’s not forget about a very important issue that will be on the ballot this November.
Thanks to an overwhelmingly bipartisan effort in the state legislature, Ohioans will have a chance on Election Day 2015 to fix Ohio’s broken redistricting process. This reform measure, which will be known to voters as Issue 1, will help curb the partisan penchant for gerrymandering and restore some sanity to the Ohio Statehouse.
Under the proposed plan, approval of new state legislative districts will, among other important changes, require bipartisan support. This is huge. Currently, districts are drawn by one party in a winner-take-all approach. If voters approve this measure in November, we can end this flawed process and give regular Ohioans a stronger voice in their state government.
Gerrymandering has long been a part of our politics in Ohio, but it’s gotten much worse as technology has made this subtle art an exact science. The precision with which legislative districts are now drawn has led to a rise in partisan extremism and a decline of representational democracy.
By slicing and dicing voters into various legislative districts, line-drawers make districts either all red or all blue. This increases the significance of partisan primary elections and results in candidates taking extreme positions on the right and the left. The precision of modern day gerrymandering also dilutes certain groups of voters by packing them into fewer overall districts thus distorting the representational make up of the state.
In the last six presidential elections, a plurality of Ohioans voted for Bill Clinton twice, George W. Bush twice, and Barack Obama twice. Yet, during that same 25-year period one party largely dominated the state legislature. Another example of this distortion of representational democracy: Republicans solidified a supermajority in the Ohio House in 2012, despite getting 154,523 fewer overall votes statewide.
If the tables turn and Democratic line-drawers control the process, there’s little doubt the outcome would be equally skewed in their favor. And that’s just the point: having one party draw the districts makes an already flawed process worse. This reform proposal changes that. It gives the minority party a voice in the process and a check against winner-take-all gerrymandering.
Issue 1 creates a seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission co-chaired by two individuals from opposite parties. The members consist of three statewide elected officials, two Democrats and two Republicans from the state legislature. Approval of the plan will need at least two votes from each party and it includes some anti-gerrymandering guidelines to further protect against distorting the line-drawing process.
Additionally, the plan incentivizes the Commission members to work together to draw a bipartisan map. It does so by creating an impasse resolution that would be used only if the parties can’t initially agree on a new map. If the Commission reaches an impasse, the majority party draws the map but it only goes into effect for four years (or two election cycles), not the full decade.
If a map is drawn by the majority under the impasse resolution, the balance of power could change on the Ohio Redistricting Commission during that first four-year period in which the temporary map is in place. This means that the majority party could lose the slight advantage they have in the line-drawing process for the remaining six years of the decade.
Under the current system, the party in power draws the map and virtually assures itself legislative majorities in the Ohio House and Senate for decades at a time. This plan prevents that by creating uncertainty that will force the parties to hedge their bets and work together.
Various groups have tried to reform Ohio’s broken redistricting process over the years, but it hasn’t worked. Is this proposal the perfect redistricting reform plan? No, but it is a significant step forward for Ohio.
The 2016 Presidential Election is important, but we now have a real opportunity to make change and we can’t let that slip away.
Keary McCarthy is the President and CEO of Innovation Ohio, a policy and advocacy non-profit based in Columbus, Ohio.