Cross-posted on cleveland.com
We have many things to be proud of in Ohio. Our state is the birthplace of aviation and we’ve produced more than our share of presidents. We have the nation’s best college football team, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a unique flag.
But one thing we can’t be proud of is our redistricting. Districts in Ohio have been labeled some of the worst gerrymandered in the country. Under the current congressional map, Republicans have won 75 percent of seats despite claiming just 55 percent of the statewide vote. It’s the same in the Ohio House, where in 2014 gerrymandered maps enabled Republicans to win 65 out of 99 seats, the largest share either party has controlled since 1967. These gerrymandered districts distort voting power and violate the spirit and purpose of democratic representation.
But that’s not to slam Ohio Republicans. History shows both parties have been more than willing to manipulate district boundaries for partisan advantage.
A study this year by the League of Women Voters of Ohio found each district under current maps strongly favors one party or the other. And, true to form, in the 2012 and 2014 elections, favored candidates won virtually every time. The end result, observers claim, is a disenchanted and disengaged public.
Even elected officials recognize the problem. Republican State Sen. Frank LaRose of Copley said, “in too many cases the politicians are choosing their voters instead of the voters choosing their politicians,” which causes “more polarization than is necessary and less problem solving than would be possible otherwise.”
Of course, Ohio is not the only state with this challenge. Partisan gerrymandering is a nationwide ailment.
Voters elsewhere have tried to curb the worst abuses through the ballot box. In California, for example, voters gave map-drawing power to a citizen redistricting commission. Another approach, used in Florida, kept map-drawing in the hands of lawmakers, but created strong rules to govern how districts are drawn.
Ohio voters will soon have their chance. Issue 1 on the ballot this fall would amend the Ohio Constitution and create a bipartisan redistricting commission to draw legislative lines, as well as provide tough, new rules to rein in map-drawers.
Ohio’s proposed commission is uniquely Ohioan. Commissions in other states are typically composed entirely of citizens or elected officials. But Ohio’s seven-member commission would be a hybrid, made up of the governor, secretary of state, state auditor, and four members appointed by leaders of the state legislature who for the first time could include everyday citizens.
There also are provisions that guarantee the party not in power has a say in redistricting. At least two members of the commission, and one of the co-chairs, must be from the minority. And in order for a permanent redistricting map to be approved, it must receive an affirmative vote from at least two members of each party.
The measure also sets strict rules on how districts are drawn — including a provision prohibiting partisan gerrymandering. In fact, the commission would be required to try to draw districts so the number of seats each party is likely to win is proportional to its share of the statewide vote.
The new system “will produce a lot more competitive districts,” said former Democratic state Rep. Vernon Sykes of Akron. “Under the new provisions, neither party will be able to gerrymander as well as they have in the past.”
This is not the first time efforts to fix gerrymandering have appeared on the Ohio ballot. But unlike past efforts, which broke down in partisan rancor, Issue 1 has broad support from both sides of the aisle. When lawmakers approved the measure at the end of last year, it passed 80–4 in the House and 28–1 in the Senate.
Since then, an unusual, even unlikely, group of allies have come together to endorse the amendment.
Issue 1 is supported by both the Republican and Democratic parties. It is also endorsed by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, Common Cause Ohio, the League of Women Voters of Ohio, and many other groups.
Ending gerrymandering has been difficult in Ohio. But with this rare bipartisan agreement, the stars could be aligning for Ohio voters this fall.
The Rev. Otis Moss Jr. was the pastor at Cleveland’s Olivet Institutional Baptist Church until 2008.