The political process for drawing legislative districts has become a way for parties to create safe zones where incumbents aren’t challenged and voters find it nearly impossible to hold their elected officials accountable, says a grass-roots group proposing an alternative idea.
But the group will need nearly 131,000 more valid signatures to get their idea on the November ballot.
Voters First — supported by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other public-interest groups — submitted more than 450,000 signatures July 3 to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.
On Wednesday, Husted announced that 254,625 of the signatures were valid. Petitioners will be given 10 more days to reach a required 385,253 signatures, or 10 percent of the total votes cast for governor in 2010.
Also, the signatures must represent 5 percent of the total votes cast for governor in at least 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Husted reported that the threshold was met in 34 counties, among them Summit, Stark, Medina and Portage.
Organizers said they expected some signatures to be thrown out and they will have more to submit for the July 28 deadline.
“Our signature-gathering efforts haven’t stopped since July 3,” said Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University and member of the Voters First coalition. “We are confident that we will be able to submit whatever number we need.”
The ballot issue being sought would amend the state Constitution to create a 12-member independent citizens commission — absent any politicians, lobbyists or political insiders — to draw new legislative districts. The committee also would be responsible for the traditional redrawing of boundaries after every 10-year census to reflect population shifts.
The commission would be made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and four independents, with approval of at least seven people needed to adopt a plan. The goal would be districts that are geographically compact with divisions among counties, townships, municipalities and wards between different districts kept to a minimum.
Tokaji said the current system has been abused to the point of having a “really profound impact on our democracy, because if all the politicians are in safe districts, they don’t have to listen to the voices of ‘we the people.’ ” he said. “On the other hand, if we have fair and competitive districts, our politicians will be accountable to the people whom they are sworn to serve.”
He said the present system also contributes to the deep divisions between parties as well as citizens.
In the current political climate, “Democrats and Republicans seem more interested in disagreeing with each other than getting things done,” he said.
When you have a district drawn to strengthen a party and collect like-minded voters together, “it’s a strong incentive [for politicians] to cater to the extreme and little incentive to compromise,” Tokaji said.
Barbara Mattern, a member of the Tallmadge League of Women Voters, helped the cause by collecting 78 signatures at local meetings, at her church and during visits to the courthouse.
She said most of the people she talked to understood the basics of redistricting and the problems it has caused.
“Most of them were familiar with the Dennis Kucinich issue and realized how out of whack the system was, that we could go from Cleveland to Toledo to create just one district,” Mattern said. “They seemed to understand it was done behind closed doors, and it would be a lot more fair if it were done by a nonpartisan committee.”
The issue Mattern referred to is the new 9th Congressional District.
The state’s Republican-controlled legislature redrew the district so it would stretch 120 miles along Lake Erie to reach two of Ohio’s biggest cities. By encompassing both Kucinich and U.S. Rep Marcy Kaptur of Toledo, the redrawn boundary forced a showdown between the two veteran Democrats, assuring one would lose a congressional seat.
Kaptur defeated Kucinich in the March primary.
Tokaji said Stark County was the site of another case last year that opponents have dubbed “the Timken Peninsula.”
The map for the 16th Congressional District includes a fingerlike appendage that pops up to capture the Timken Co. headquarters, home to major Republican donors.
The fact map drawers had assembled in a secret hotel meeting space they dubbed “the bunker,” away from potential prying eyes at the Statehouse in Columbus, should also be a red flag to voters, the OSU professor said.
“This initiative [asks] to change politics as usual and create a political process in Ohio that is fair, accountable and transparent,” Tokaji said, noting that the Voters First language would require all meetings and records of the citizen’s committee to be open to the public.
Redistricting was a major issue in Akron a decade ago when Ohio Republicans decided to cut the city into three congressional districts, extending one all the way to Youngstown. For the first time, it became possible for Summit County not to have a resident in the Ohio General Assembly.
While recent abuses have been laid at the feet of the Republican Party because it holds power currently, John Green of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Science said Democrats acted the same when they held the majority.
“There’s no question there is a lot of dissatisfaction in Ohio that redistricting is partisan,” Green said.
The major complaints, he said, are that redistricting can be done to eliminate competition, and that the borders drawn are often “not natural.”
“There are people from both parties interested in a better process,” Green said.
While the Voters First initiative seems to be less political, he said others are skeptical any system can remain partisan-free for long.
And in the cases of Akron and Toledo, where borders were redrawn to divide the cities, the jury is out on whether the voters were harmed.
“Many people believe those cities are not being represented fully because the city and the metropolitan area are not substantially within a district,” he said.
“Others will say there is a silver lining: that these metro areas have the attention of multiple members of Congress now. You can get a pretty good argument going either way,” Green said.