Despite a broad, bipartisan consensus on the basics of how to fix Ohio’s highly partisan methods for drawing legislative and U.S. House districts, work by a special constitutional modernization commission has slowed to a crawl of late. When the commission meets next week, the discussion appears unlikely to advance the cause of redistricting reform, let alone produce final agreement on an amendment that would be sent to the legislature, which must then put the issue before voters in November.
Prominent Republicans, among them Jon Husted, the secretary of state, and state Sen. Frank LaRose, support the idea of a bipartisan panel that would draw legislative and congressional lines after each census, with at least one minority party vote required for approval. Democrats such as state Sen. Tom Sawyer and state Rep. Vernon Sykes are also on board.
Conspicuously absent has been needed leadership from William Batchelder, the House speaker who co-chairs the constitutional modernization commission. The concern is that the speaker would prefer to see the plan for a bipartisan redistricting panel get bogged down in discussions about details such as the number of minority votes required or how best to break an impasse, likely to be settled in federal court, anyway.
If that happens, momentum will be lost. The crucial goal is to get an amendment through the legislature by the August deadline for placing an amendment on the fall ballot. Already, there is talk of delay — until 2015, pairing redistricting with an amendment for easing term limits.
The trouble is, after this year, each party will begin to calculate who will be in charge after the next census, disrupting the consensus for changing what is a deeply flawed system.
As matters stand, U.S. House districts are drawn by the legislature, which advances a bill for the governor to sign. Legislative districts are drawn by a special panel dominated by statewide officeholders. Both processes can be controlled by a single party, as they were by Republicans after the most recent census in 2010.
The result is a collection of misshapen districts that work to encourage polarization. The districts pack Democrats into urban districts, making suburban and rural areas more favorable for Republican candidates. All of it invites lawmakers far less willing to compromise, fearing primary challenges from extremists in their own party.
Ohio provides an example of a national trend. With solid majorities in the Ohio House and Senate, and with a Republican governor ready to sign a redistricting bill, the party crafted districts that delivered 75 percent of the state’s U.S. House seats even though Republican candidates won 51 percent of the vote. Republicans and Democrats understand that the state needs a better way. Will the consensus prevail? Or must advocates for redistricting reform get ready soon to take their own measure to the ballot?