A year ago, the League of Women Voters and other groups backed a complex constitutional amendment that proposed putting redistricting in the hands of a citizens commission. Voters soundly defeated Issue 2. Yet even many Republicans who opposed the measure agreed that Ohio must fix the highly partisan way it redraws legislative and congressional districts after each census.
Unfortunately, despite the promises of action in the wake of Issue 2’s defeat, progress toward redistricting reform in the Republican-controlled legislature has been slow, at best. While the next census isn’t until 2020, interest in redistricting reform is likely to wane much beyond 2014 as each party begins to gauge its chances of seizing control for the next round of boundary adjustments.
A redistricting plan put forward last week by state Rep. Vernon Sykes should serve as a call to action. The Akron Democrat, who co-chairs the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission, has provided the right framework, a bipartisan body that would take charge of both legislative and congressional redistricting.
Compromise would be built into the process, crucial to ending grossly gerrymandered districts. In such safe territories, representatives have little incentive to seek the middle ground on difficult issues, fearing a primary challenger. That’s what happened after the 2010 census, Republicans controlling both the legislature, which redraws congressional districts, and the state apportionment board, dominated by statewide officeholders, which redraws legislative districts.
Under the Sykes amendment, the four legislative leaders (two from each party) would appoint four non-legislative members of a new redistricting body. The four selected would decide on a fifth member, also a non-legislator. The panel would include the Ohio secretary of state as a non-voting member. A competition would be held for new districts, with the winning map providing a backup plan. For the new redistricting group to act, four of the five voting members would have to agree, using the same factors (such as compactness and competitiveness) as the competition.
The Constitutional Modernization Commission must act in time for an amendment to be placed on the November ballot next year, or the state risks another decade of gerrymandered districts. Will Republicans in charge live up to their promises? Sykes has shown the way. So have state Sens. Frank LaRose and Tom Sawyer, and Jon Husted, the secretary of state, with their own reasonable proposals. If nothing credible happens by spring, the League of Women Voters and its allies should mobilize to put their plan back on the ballot.