Easy Fix for Ohio’s Broken U.S. House Districts

Fixing the way Ohio’s congressional districts are drawn should be a no-brainer. Yet the General Assembly and the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission remain stalled when it comes to giving voters a chance to weigh in.

May 14, 2016

Crossposted with the Akron Beacon Journal

Fixing the way Ohio’s congressional districts are drawn should be a no-brainer. Yet the General Assembly and the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission, a group created by the legislature in 2011 to study the state constitution and recommend amendments, remain stalled when it comes to giving voters a chance to weigh in.

Their hesitancy is puzzling given the overwhelming and bipartisan popularity of redistricting reform in Ohio. Last November, 71 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting commission to draw the state’s legislative districts. The measure was so popular that it achieved the rare feat of securing endorsements from both the Republican and Democratic parties. It also collected endorsements from a broad coalition of allies, including the Ohio Conference of the NAACP, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, and the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, who frequently find themselves on opposite ends of the table on a host of issues.

Many of Ohio’s top elected officials are also calling for a better congressional redistricting process. Earlier this year, Gov. John Kasich said reform would reduce government dysfunction. In his April 6 State of the State address in Marietta, Kasich again stressed the need for congressional redistricting reform, saying, “Ideas and merits should be what wins [sic] elections, not gerrymandering.”

Secretary of State Jon Husted, a fellow Republican, is also a longtime champion for reform, and a growing number of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle want to fix how congressional districts are drawn.

Ohio is far from an outlier on this issue. There is an unprecedented level of interest in redistricting reform nationally, including serious reform efforts in states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and South Dakota. Even President Obama has joined the growing chorus of voices calling for fair districts. He highlighted the problem of gerrymandering in his State of the Union address in January and again shortly thereafter in a speech to the Illinois legislature.

With such widespread support, it’s long past time for Ohio’s General Assembly and modernization commission to get on board.

To start, it would be an easy and logical step to give the new bipartisan commission the additional responsibility of drawing Ohio’s congressional districts. This change would expand the strong redistricting rules that voters adopted last November when they approved Issue 1 to apply to congressional as well as state legislative districts. These rules, which prevent map drawers from drawing districts to favor or disfavor a particular political party or incumbent legislator and require them to minimize the division of political subdivisions, could go a long way toward eliminating the worst gerrymandering abuses.

They need not stop there, however. The modernization commission and legislature could take additional common-sense steps to improve the process, such as requiring that everyday Ohioans have a hand in the process and ensuring the commission fully represents the state’s diversity.

Having nonpoliticians on the redistricting commission would boost public confidence that the system isn’t rigged and increase the commission’s credibility by providing an important check on partisan attempts to manipulate districts. As currently structured, Ohio’s seven-member legislative redistricting commission consists of the governor, secretary of state, state auditor and four members appointed by legislative leaders. There are some restrictions on who the legislators can appoint, but there is no requirement that any of the appointees be everyday citizens as opposed to politicians.

Several members of the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission have already acknowledged the value inherent in having people other than politicians on the commission. At a January meeting, former Gov. Bob Taft, along with state Rep. Michael Curtin, D-Marble Cliff, and state Sen. Charleta Tavares, D-Columbus, commented that current lawmakers should to be banned from sitting on the redistricting commission.

Given the demographic complexity of Ohio, the redistricting process could also be improved by requiring that the commission accurately reflect the makeup of the entire state, including geography, race, and ethnicity. Currently, there is no such requirement, meaning the commission could end up with a group of homogenous members who are all from the same city. A diverse commission would provide a broader range of experience and knowledge to draw from when creating districts. A commissioner from one part of the state, for example, could use her understanding of local demographic and geographic nuances to create districts that better represent communities.

Ohio showed the country the way forward last November when it adopted a better process for state legislative redistricting. But there is more work to be done — now is the time to tackle gerrymandering for good by reforming the way congressional districts are drawn. The General Assembly and the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission should make a smart choice and give Ohio’s voters that opportunity.