When it comes to redistricting reform, nothing is easy. Asking politicians to change the rules that shape the districts in which they run means asking many to abandon the safety of gerrymandered seats.
Why take the risk of creating competition for yourself when you can look ahead to the day when your side is back in power and can draw new lines that pack or splinter the opposition into near oblivion?
Those are the big reasons behind the big stall in the legislature and the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission. The legislature is waiting for a recommendation from the commission before putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot, but the commission is moving very slowly. An issue must get on the ballot soon — this fall would be best — before legislators use 2014 results to project likely winners in 2018, winners who will control redistricting after the next census.
The history of citizen-initiated amendments is not very auspicious, either. In 2005 and 2012, complex ballot issues were defeated. When voters get confused, they tend to vote “no.”
So why should citizens try again now?
Besides timing, reasons can be found in the latest statewide poll done for the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
The keys to success? A simple, easily understood amendment that calls for a bipartisan board to redraw legislative and congressional districts.
The Bliss poll of Ohio registered voters showed a strong level of dissatisfaction with the way legislative districts are redrawn, by a board of elected officials controlled by either Democrats or Republicans. (Congressional redistricting isn’t much better. It is controlled by the legislature.)
Almost half (48 percent) of registered voters said the process for redrawing legislative districts had produced “poor government in Ohio and hurt the state.” That’s a strong sign they understand competitive districts would produce lawmakers willing to find common ground on issues voters care about.
The solution part is a bit trickier. Most of the sample (44 percent) want a nonpartisan panel, with 33 percent in favor of a bipartisan board. (Just 17 percent wanted to keep the current system. Six percent had no opinion).
The trouble is, the harder you try to find nonpartisan people, the more complicated your amendment becomes — and thus, more vulnerable to defeat.
On this point, the Bliss poll would be especially useful in crafting a successful campaign for a citizen-backed amendment. When asked whether a bipartisan redistricting board would be acceptable, almost three-fourths (70 percent) expressed support, even though for many it was not a first preference.
The Ohio Senate has helped pave the way with committee approval of a resolution backing a bipartisan redistricting board that would handle legislative and congressional districts. Co-sponsored by Sens. Frank LaRose, a Copley Township Republican, and Tom Sawyer, an Akron Democrat, the resolution enjoyed bipartisan support. But House Speaker Bill Batchelder wanted to wait for the constitutional commission, which now looks like a stalling tactic.
Batchelder has talked about eventually pairing a redistricting amendment with an amendment to alter the state’s eight-year term limits. The Bliss Institute’s polling indicates that would result in a much tougher sell, perhaps sinking both issues.
More than one-half of registered voters (57 percent) said term limits have produced “good government in Ohio” (despite ample evidence to the contrary). Seventy percent support the eight-year term limits.
The poll did find linkage between redistricting reform and extending term limits to 12 years. The pairing resulted in 54 percent support for 12-year limits, but the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The risk of pairing isn’t worth it. The best course is to push ahead with a redistricting amendment based on a bipartisan board, with at least one vote by the minority party needed to pass a plan, leaving aside detailed standards on compactness and competitiveness.
Once that has passed, voters might be convinced in a later election to extend term limits.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.