Redistricting fix unlikely - Clock ticking as two proposals for reform stall in Ohio House

Joe Hallett
December 28, 2009

Politics is what keeps something from getting done that almost everyone agrees ought to be done.

Thus it appears that Ohio will retain its system of gerrymandering legislative and congressional districts for another decade, even though there is widespread support for finding a new way and the state's impending loss of two congressional districts would seem to make the timing right for reform.

Two proposals to change how Ohio draws new districts every 10 years are languishing in the Ohio House. Odds are against either proposal mustering the three-fifths vote needed in the House and Senate by Feb. 3 to put them on the May 4 ballot.

"It's pretty slim," said Kevin DeWine, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.

"It's not a motivator for the electorate," said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

Although DeWine and Redfern say they support reforming the redistricting process to maximize the number of legislative and congressional districts that are competitive for both parties, neither trusts the other party to craft fair district lines.

Both chairmen are gearing up to compete anew in the 4-decade-old winner-take-all system that good-government advocates and political scientists have deplored for creating polarized legislative bodies and thwarting compromise.

"Competitive districts tend to create more centrists, and wouldn't they be nice to have in government, because there's something to be said for consensus-building," said Catherine Turcer of Ohio Citizen Action, which has joined the Ohio League of Women Voters as key promoters of redistricting reform.

Under the current system, whichever political party holds three seats on the five-member State Apportionment Board will control the legislative mapping process. The board is composed of a General Assembly member from each party, the governor, secretary of state and auditor. Whichever party wins two of those statewide executive posts next year will control the board.

Historically, the party in charge of the board has gerrymandered a majority of House and Senate districts to favor its candidates.

"Whoever wins the primary election gets to be the state senator or state representative because the districts are drawn in such a biased fashion," said Sen. Jon Husted, R-Kettering. "It's the politicians picking their voters rather than the voters picking their politicians."

Congressional districts in Ohio are drawn by the legislature. Ohio is poised to lose two U.S. House seats, from 18 to 16, after the 2010 U.S. Census is completed.

The Ohio House is sitting on a Senate-passed bill sponsored by Husted that would assign the drawing of Statehouse and congressional boundaries to a bipartisan seven-member panel. Under the Husted bill, a redistricting plan would need the consent of at least two members of the minority party to ensure bipartisan support.

The League of Women Voters also has submitted a redistricting reform plan to leaders of the Ohio House that sets forth four criteria for drawing Statehouse and congressional boundaries: making districts compact; keeping "communities of interest" intact by splitting as few counties and municipalities as possible; maximizing the number of districts winnable by either party; and ensuring overall fairness in representation.

Husted said it is crucial that one of the plans be approved by the legislature in time for the May ballot, because after that, both parties will have done extensive polling and the one that appears best positioned to win control of the apportionment board will oppose redistricting reform.

"We're at a unique time in Ohio history where, going into an apportionment board election, no one really knows who's going to be in charge of that board, so why don't we just lay down our partisan arms and for once do something we can both deem as fair," said Husted, a candidate for secretary of state.

Joan Lawrence, a GOP member of the Ohio House for 16 years until 1999 and a perennial advocate for redistricting reform, acknowledged that getting three-fifths majority approval in each house by Feb. 3 to put a reform plan on the May ballot is a long shot.

"The only way it can get on the ballot in May is for both parties to decide to support it," she said.

jhallett@dispatch.com

Caption: Photo
Senator Jon Husted

Edition: Home Final
Section: News
Page: 01B
Record Number: 09122814790864
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