Voters in Tuesday’s election were nearly unanimous in their support of Issue 1, the constitutional amendment intended to end the partisan gerrymandering in Ohio’s Statehouse. For the most part Ohio is considered a purple state with the number of Republicans and Democrats being more or less equal. However, two-thirds of the Ohio Statehouse seats and three-fourths of Ohio’s congressional seats are held by members of one party. The passage of issue one levels the playing field by making the process of dividing the state into legislative districts more balanced. The majority can no longer create districts that favor their party by packing minority party voters together. The issue’s passage is expected to profoundly effect how the state is governed in the future
The amendment creates a new, bipartisan commission to draw legislative districts that are compact and do not favor one political party over another. The amendment takes effect in 2021 when the next redistricting is scheduled to occur. Issue 1 was the fourth citizen initiative attempting to change the redistricting system that has allowed a single political party to maintain control over the statehouse for the past two decades. In 1981 an initiative that would have given redistricting authority to a state commission was defeated with 58 percent of voters against it. A 2005 measure was also defeated with 69 percent voting against it. In 2012 a measure proposing a 12 person citizen commission redraw the maps was defeated by 68 percent of the voters.
The new amendment will ensure the minority party has a voice in the political process and that districts will be more competitive and representative. Both the Ohio Republican and Democratic parties support the plan, as do business groups, unions, religious leaders and a variety of organizations that promote voting access.
The ultimate goal is a more effective and responsive state government.
Formerly, the system allowed a partisan 5-member board that included the governor, state auditor, secretary of state and two members selected by the legislative leaders of the two major parties to draw legislative districts.
The amendment establishes a bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission, composed of 7 members including the Governor, the Auditor of State, the Secretary of State, and a bipartisan majority of 4 members. A 10 year redistricting plan now requires agreement between the major political parties. If the commission fails to pass a bipartisan plan, then a simple majority of four members are required to pass a plan that will last four years. The amendment forbids district plans from favoring either political party, thereby ending the partisan drawing of Ohio House and Senate districts, and replacing it with a bipartisan process that creates district boundaries that are more compact and politically competitive.
The amendment also ensures a transparency by requiring public meetings, public displays of maps, and a public letter explaining any plan the Commission adopts by a simple majority vote.
Critics of the amendment argue that it only addresses half the problem because it does not change how districts are drawn for the U.S. House of Representatives. They argue that former Speaker of the House, John Boehner-R pressured lawmakers to forgo including congressional redistricting. Commenting on reform efforts, Boehner said, “I frankly don’t think it needs to be fixed,” adding, “for 40 years the Democrat Party had the pencil in their hands, and for the last 20 years we’ve had the pencil. When you’ve got the pencil in your hand, you’re going to use it to the best of your advantage.”
Richard Gunther, a political science professor at Ohio State University who is involved in redistricting reform, said, “The actual argument I heard when I was engaged in negotiations was there was a tremendous amount of pressure from John Boehner not to go into this. Boehner is perfectly happy with the existing process, and he should be because it is outrageously disproportionate.”
Technological advances in mapping software and voter data have expedited precision drawing of district lines. In the past the majority party attempted to draw winnable districts that were unaffected by populist ideology and legal challenges. Elections in these districts rarely reflected the will of the electorate.
The majority party can solidify its power by crafting a number of districts that, on paper, give it 5-to-10 point advantages, while giving the minority party fewer seats but with huge advantages of 20 points or more.
In the 2012 elections, for example, Ohio House Democrats got 56,000 more total votes than Republicans, but the GOP won 60 of 99 seats.
“That’s preposterous,” said Gunther, “Somehow, you pull a rabbit out of the hat, and the loser becomes the winner.
The campaign that supported the amendment was led by Fair Districts for Ohio and the measure was sponsored by Rep. Matt Huffman-R with Rep. Vernon Sykes-D.