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State needs maps politicians don't like

Paper: Dayton Daily News (OH)

Date: March 5, 2006

True to their word, Ohio House Speaker Jon Husted, R-Kettering, and Rep. Kevin DeWine, R-Fairborn, are working on a much needed overhaul of Ohio's method for drawing legislative maps.

They're meeting with Democrats who pushed a ballot measure last year that would have revolutionized mapmaking. Issue 4 — as it was called —was opposed by Republicans and overwhelmingly rejected by voters.

At that time, Rep. DeWine and others said, yes, Ohio's system for creating legislative districts must be changed. Giving all power to whichever political party happens to be in power is not good.

But Issue 4 went well beyond establishing a bipartisan process. It went beyond talking about who should be involved. It

staked out rules for mapmakers.

Maps determine so much

The mapmakers' role is crucial. They decide which voters will be in which districts. In the process, they can make it hard — even impossible — for one party's candidate to win. Though many voters say they vote for the person, not a political party, the reality is that the mapmakers can determine election outcomes almost independent of who the candidates are.

The plan put forth in Issue 4 put a premium on designing "competitive" districts — districts that could be won by either party, at least when there isn't a strong incumbent.

In Ohio, almost no congressional districts are like that now, and only a few state legislative districts are. But a fair number could be.

Montgomery County is a classic example. Taken as a whole, it's nearly a toss-up between the two parties. But all five of its Ohio house districts are absolute locks for one party or the other. That's absurd. It relieves the political worries of the incumbents.

Three of the districts are Republican and two Democratic, despite the fact that county has gone narrowly Democratic in all recent presidential elections.

What to do? Opponents of Issue 4 said, if you make competitiveness the top priority, you could end up with winding, ugly, elongated districts that subdivide cities and counties unnecessarily.

In the current talks — which are designed to write a constitutional amendment that would be put on the ballot by a vote of the Legislature — the focus has been on creating a bipartisan commission to handle all redistricting.

The commission would have two members appointed by Republicans, two by Democrats and three more appointed unanimously by the first four. A supermajority of five would be needed to approve a map. There's talk that maybe the five also should have to include a Democrat, a Republican and a nonpartisan.

The commission would be an unmistakable improvement over the status quo. Now, one party always has a clear majority on the commission that draws state legislative maps (depending on which party has the governor, secretary of state and state auditor). As for congressional maps, the Legislature and governor shape those districts; that, too, can result in one party being excluded.

Bipartisanship not enough

Let's look at how a commission might affect the Montgomery County situation described above. Under the new plan, the districts probably wouldn't be drawn to suit one party. But that doesn't mean the districts would be competitive.

Suppose the three independent people on the commission decide that their job is simply to reconcile the two parties. And suppose neither party is proposing competitive districts. That's likely to be the situation. The parties would be driven by people in power. Those people have no interest in fostering competition for themselves.

But real competition is desirable. Districts that can go either way are far more likely to attract qualified candidates from both parties. Real competition adds life to democracy. It gives people a reason to vote. It keeps politicians nervous, which is likely to keep them on their best behavior. It moves them away from knee-jerk partisanship, because they also need the votes of nonpartisans.

Competitive elections also minimize the power of party leaders, who now practically appoint people to legislative seats.

So in the current negotiations some people want to mandate that the commission create a minimum number of competitive districts — maybe 20 to 33 percent.

But others are resisting, for various reasons. Some say that just treating the parties equally is good enough. Some don't see competitiveness as all that desirable; they prefer to focus on keeping districts compact. Some are worried about putting quotas in a constitution that governs not just the next redistricting process, but future ones.

Most of their arguments are not powerful. Some can be handled through compromise.

Neither side in the negotiations seems hopelessly dug in. That's good. Something should be worked out that eliminates not only one-party domination, but also domination by back-room trading that serves the incumbents of both parties. Elected officials are an interest group. Other voices need to be heard, other interests addressed.

Copyright, 2006, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.

Section: Opinion

Page: B8

Copyright, 2006, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.

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