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Hope for Redistricting Reform in Ohio

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It may not seem like it, but the way we currently do redistricting presents a challenge to our very confidence in democracy. Consider that in November 2012, Ohioans voted 51 percent in favor of President Obama. Yet the congressional delegation elected in the same election is 75 percent Republican and just 25 percent Democratic. That’s not because Republicans rallied the vote for their caucus but not their presidential candidate. It’s because this time around, Republicans controlled the redistricting process and drew lines favoring incumbents and GOP candidates. To be sure, Democrats have had the same power in previous decades and abused it in similar fashion. What it makes clear, though, is that, by and large, voters do not choose their congressional representatives. It’s the members of Congress who are choosing their voters.

Sure, there have been three significant attempts at redistricting reform in the past seven years, all failed: Issue 2 last November ballot, Reform Ohio Now in 2006, and an ill-fated legislative push, back when the GOP controlled the State Senate and Dems who thought they knew better controlled the House.

But we seem to have entered a new era, an era in which there is bipartisan agreement that the way we currently draw congressional boundaries is likely not in democracy’s best interest, that it risks undermining our faith in the institutions that serve us. And there’s a growing consensus -- among voters and lawmakers -- that however partisan the process must be, we can do better. How, exactly, we might do better is the question that newly minted Democratic State Representative Mike Curtin and Republican State Senator Frank LaRose discussed with ideastream's Karen Kasler at The City Club of Cleveland recently.

Before we get to what might be better, we should look at why the most recent proposal failed. Issue 2 was modeled after California's recent successful ballot box redistricting reform, but according to LaRose, it was "overly complicated, it amounted to a Rube Goldberg kind of device." I'm inclined to agree on that front. The other flaw is that it relied on the appointment of four non-partisan appointees to serve alongside four Democrats and four Republicans. LaRose again: "Non-partisan people don't exist." Right. Truly non-partisan people are likely also to be poorly informed and under-educated; in other words, not the sort you'd want drawing district maps.

After the failure of Issue 2, the most oft-mentioned proposal is to take care of redistricting reform through the obscure and little known Constitutional Modernization Commission, an appointed body of some 32 elected and non-elected public servants, tasked with combing through the state constitution and researching potential updates. The Ohio State Bar Association has championed this as an avenue for redistricting reform. But at the City Club, there was bipartisan agreement that this is a terrible idea. Curtin, an erstwhile newspaperman, called it "a recipe for putting [redistricting] in the deep freeze." LaRose quickly agreed. The earliest the Commission could deliver a proposal is in 2015, halfway to the next census and the mapmaking that follows. Both Curtin and LaRose worry that the closer we get to the 2020 census, the more likely we are to repeat the political gamesmanship of the last decade that ensured nothing changes.

So what can be done now? LaRose has started with Senate Joint Resolution 5, which has bipartisan interest, if not clear support. It calls for a seven-member committee, comprised of the governor, auditor, secretary of state, and appointees from the house speaker, the house minority leader, Senate President, and senate minority leader. In the current context that would make for five Rs and two Ds, which could be potentially problematic, if not for one key procedural stipulation: adopting any new map requires at least one minority vote. In other words, it has to be bi-partisan.

At this point, it's worth pointing out that some Democrats supported the maps GOP leaders drew, so the SJR 5 proposal isn't fool-proof. It all, of course, comes down to who would be on the commission.

But there are some other things this plan has going for it:
-All map-drawing is consolidated into one commission. (Since 1967, the Apportionment Board has dealt with state legislative districts; legislative leaders have had control over Congressional district boundaries.)
-It brings a healthy dose of sunshine. All meetings will be held in public, and the commission will seek public input on proposals.
-It explicitly prohibits drawing boundaries for partisan political gain
-It respects existing community boundaries -- in other words, you wouldn't have a single city represented by three different congress members.

SJR 5 is silent on the importance of creating compact districts and competitive districts, and could be improved by speaking directly to the importance of those two characteristics. Curtin notes, too, that SJR 5 is silent on how dispute resolution should happen. As he pointed out, "there's no sword of Damocles" hanging over the heads of commission members, and he and LaRose discussed a few potential dispute resolution "swords," ranging from a coin flip to threatening commission members with 10 years of non-partisan primaries (which, frankly, sounds like it might be a good thing).

So what else needs should be considered as this moves to the House? Curtin has a few ideas. He's enamored of how they do redistricting in Iowa -- what he calls a "hermetically sealed process" where a totally sequestered and isolated employee of the non-partisan Legislative Service Commission creates a map based on existing political jurisdictions and aligning the population centers of districts to their geographic center (thus ensuring compactness).

The point in all of this is that the redistricting we got this last time around was shameful and appalling but not criminal. It should have been, however. We can do better, and now is the time when we can begin to do better.

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