After years of complaints about the way the Ohio's Congressional and Statehouse districts are drawn, an appointed panel of current and former lawmakers and other officials is looking over a plan to change it. In the second of a three part series on the issues in front of the Constitutional Modernization Commission, there’s still a lot of debate over whether that plan is fair and politically balanced.
It’s hard to find anyone around Capitol Square who doesn’t think the current process for redistricting doesn’t need to be tweaked or even completely overhauled.
The system in place now allows the party in charge of leadership at the Statehouse when the lines are drawn to control the process, so the lines can be created in a way that benefits them. Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted is among those who want to change the redistricting process.
“The districts are sprawling, gerrymandered behemoths in many cases that go all the way from Toledo to Cleveland and nobody really believes, who is fair minded, that this is a good process. You look at how broken Washington is and you can blame it, in part, on the fact that you have gerrymandered districts where people appeal to the political right or the political left and then send everybody to Washington and say “hey, let’s all get along" Husted said.
Husted has advocated for legislation to change the process for years, even sponsoring his own. The latest plan he’s advocating to the Commission would include a 7 member board – the Governor, Auditor and Secretary of State – two Democrats and two Republicans from the legislature.
Five of those board members would have to agree to any plan, and that approval must be bipartisan, so it must include at least one vote from a member of the minority party. Some Democrats on the panel want this plan to require two minority party votes, instead of one. Richard Gunther, a Political Science Professor at Ohio State University, agrees with that point. He has testified before the Constitutional Modernization Commission, saying requiring two minority members to approve a redistricting plan would make it harder for the majority party to focus on a deal to entice one minority member. He says something must be done and adds Ohio’s current redistricting method is grotesque in terms of representing the preferences of voters.
“In the last congressional elections, we had 52% casting ballots in favor of Republican candidates but Republicans received 75% of the seats. That’s just unfair.”
Husted’s proposal would also require the districts keep counties and communities intact to prevent gerrymandering. But one person who was invited to testify before the commission disagrees that major changes need to be made. In fact, Tom Brunell, a political science professor from the University of Texas in Dallas says competition in districts may be overrated. He testified that when a district is competitive between the two major parties, that automatically means nearly half of voters will feel they are not being represented because their candidate lost.
“Was the benefit of having this competitive election, does that offset all these other costs of having all these voters not well represented in the Assembly or in congress? In my mind, they don’t" said Brunell.
He says the ideal district is one in which the vast majority of voters think alike in terms of ideology. He says competitive districts don’t lead to more bipartisanship. Gunther, on the other hand, says competitiveness should be a key consideration but he doesn’t think the partisans on the panel are likely to push for it.
Husted’s proposal on redistricting changes is the only one so far, and he says he believes the panel is close to coming to an agreement. And once the commission passes a proposal, the legislature would have to pass it - perhaps later this year. After that, it would go before voters next fall in 2015.