When Ohioans go to the Nov. 6 ballot to decide whether to change how the state draws legislative and congressional districts, the political implications will be huge.
It could mean no more winner-takes-all for the majority party, which gerrymanders districts to its benefit. Lawmakers of both parties could face severe uncertainty.
So while redistricting may not be an issue foremost in voters’ minds, there will be a fierce debate over whether the proposal is the right alternative for the current system.
Critics have argued that Ohio’s redistricting process does a disservice to voters, reducing the impact of their votes by creating safe districts that protect incumbents, keep the majority party in power and lead to more ideological lawmakers who are less likely to compromise.
Experts use techniques such as “packing” and “cracking” — pressing large blocs of like-minded voters into a single district to lessen their influence on surrounding districts or spreading them out over several districts to dilute their power.
Although Ohio is divided fairly evenly between the two major parties, the lines Republicans drew last year give them a solid chance to hold 12 of 16 congressional seats, and a healthy majority in each state legislative chamber.
“I’m still a believer that we need to improve the current system,” said Sen. Keith Faber, R-Celina, co-chairman of the Redistricting Task Force.
“But I’m convinced this [proposed] approach is worse than the current system.”
However, those pushing for reform say they’ve seen too many years of talk about redistricting and no final action — a situation blamed on both parties. Leaders of Voters First say they have run out of patience.
The proposal seeks to take state political leaders out of the process, and hand map-making to a panel that will draw lines based on criteria such as compactness, competitiveness and keeping communities intact.
Support for proposal
“This is a reform for the underdogs, for people fighting for fairness,” said Catherine Turcer, chairwoman of Voters First, a coalition led by the League of Women Voters of Ohio and Democrats and backed by union funding.
“We want Ohio votes to mean something. The manipulation of district lines is a manipulation of their vote. Changing to a fairer system will likely lead to more effective government.”
But Republicans say the proposed citizens’ panel would be unaccountable to voters and could end up drawing crazy-looking maps that are no better, and possibly worse, than what Ohio has today — particularly if it focuses on drawing competitive districts.
Guidelines for drawing districts “are very unclear,” said Secretary of State Jon Husted, who has worked for years to reform redistricting.
“There is all sorts of wiggle room that can be used for good or bad — and usually bad,” Husted said. “Nothing in their rules prevents maps from being drawn in a convoluted way. It’s left up to a group with no accountability.
Turcer said public redistricting competitions have shown that more competitive maps can be drawn without having to carve up nearly as many counties, cities and townships as the GOP maps do. On the argument of accountability, she noted that Republicans drew their maps in a downtown Columbus hotel room known as the “bunker.”
As for minority representation, Turcer said the federal Voters Rights Act still will reign.
For the first time in history, Ohio is expected to send two African-Americans to Congress — U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge of Cleveland and Joyce Beatty, who is a heavy favorite to win the new Columbus district.
State Rep. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, said she has not examined the plan closely but that the potential loss of minority representation has caused some worry.
Neither side says how much money it wants to raise, but both know they need multimillion-dollar campaigns. Unions already have given nearly $2 million to get the issue on the ballot and are expected to spend plenty more to see it pass.
For opponents led by U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, the most-obvious places to seek money are the state and federal lawmakers who have the most to lose.
Robert T. Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said the opposition campaign will have to run outside the party, which is focused on the presidential, U.S. Senate and other races.
Jason Mauk, chief of staff for Senate President Tom Niehaus and a veteran political consultant, said the New Richmond Republican opposes the amendment and will play a role in trying to defeat it. But Mauk said he did not think the Senate GOP caucus would have money to give the effort.
Asked about funding, Mark Rickel, spokesman for Protect Your Vote Ohio, the Republican campaign organized to defeat the proposal, said he expects groups will step forward as they examine the plan.
But with presidential and U.S. Senate ads already clogging the airwaves, soon to be joined by congressional and legislative candidates, both sides could have trouble getting their message through.
“The TV ad schedule is very crowded and it will be difficult for anyone to break through with consistency between late August and early November,” Mauk said. “It’s one thing to get an ad on TV. It’s another entirely to play that ad enough times to have it saturate in a voter’s mind.”
Dispatch Senior Editor Joe Hallett contributed to this story. Send emails to reporter Jim Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org.