This spring, it looked as if there would be an issues overload for the November election. As many as nine were under discussion.
Now, only one issue, a proposed constitutional amendment to change the way legislative and congressional districts are drawn, has a chance of getting before voters. The group pushing the amendment, Voters First, is gathering more signatures after an initial round of petitioning fell short.
A fierce campaign is already under way. If the redistricting issue does make it to the ballot, the fighting will be ferocious. Both political parties and their allied groups are well aware that how political boundaries are drawn goes a long way toward determining which party holds power.
The popularity of the Voters First plan appears to have caught Republicans by surprise. Although the issue is extremely complicated and ultimately subject to the same political manipulation its backers decry, its proponents (led by the Ohio League of Women Voters) have a good-government look about them.
More important, they are framing the issue as taking the power to draw the state’s congressional and legislative districts “out of the hands of the politicians” and putting it “in the hands of the people.”
One does not have to be an Elmo Roper to figure this out. Voters First, with no other issues cluttering the ballot, has a clear shot at delivering a compelling message to frustrated voters: The political system is broken, so it’s time to return the power to the people.
Republicans, who dominated the latest round of redistricting, made it virtually impossible for Democrats (a competitive party in statewide elections) to win a majority of congressional seats or a majority in either chamber of the Ohio General Assembly. They isolated Democrats in relatively safe, urban districts, then took the suburbs and rural areas for themselves.
Republicans, who control all branches of state government, are not going to surrender easily. Under the present system, control of the legislature means control over shaping congressional districts. Winning certain statewide executive offices determines the composition of the board that redraws legislative lines.
A Republican-backed group called Protect Your Vote Ohio recently sprung into being. It is engaged in a two-pronged attack: combing through the Voters First petitions to invalidate as many signatures as possible, and attacking the details of the Voters First amendment. The group appears tenacious and well funded.
In terms of policy, Voters First makes a compelling argument that hyperpartisan districts tend to elect representatives of the extreme wings of the parties, making compromise extremely difficult.
But their plan for selecting a 12-member citizens commission to take over from the legislature and statewide officeholders depends heavily on an initial selection process by a panel of appeals court judges (all of whom are elected, and all of whom must run in partisan primaries) and on detailed rules intended to screen out the politically connected.
Given the huge stakes, it’s easy to imagine pressure being applied to the judges, and then to the members of the commission. Members of the commission might not start out as partisans, but they would probably end up that way.
At this point, Republicans don’t want to take any chances. They want to kill the amendment before it gets to the fall ballot.
The amendment also contains rules on compactness, competitiveness and representational fairness, another source of dismay for Republicans seeking to hold power, although it is far from clear that the rules would hold up in court.
The Voters First plan also would jump start the process by putting new districts in effect in 2014, rather than wait for the next census, further fueling GOP outrage.
Meanwhile, with labor unions swinging behind Voters First, it’s likely that the Ohio Democratic Party will back the issue, too, according to chairman Chris Redfern, further polarizing what’s billed as a nonpartisan solution.
Is there a better way? Yes, as proposed by Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and a group of four lawmakers. They back the creation of a bipartisan commission of officeholders to redraw districts, with a supermajority required to pass a plan. Sadly, getting an alternative amendment on the ballot would take bipartisan cooperation in the legislature. Too late for that now.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.