Four members of the U.S. House from far-flung districts currently represent Akron and Summit County in our nationís Capitol. Can you name all of them? Chances are you canít. In fact, not one of them currently lives in Summit County. But, it didnít used to be that way.
For close to a century, Summit County stood at the center of a congressional district. House members from both parties were chosen to represent a community of common interest with Akron at its center. This unified representation benefited the cityís clout in Washington.
In recent decades, the drawing of congressional and state legislative districts has become so hyper-partisan that the interests of communities like Akron and Summit County have become secondary to political interests. So, why should voters care about the way districts are drawn? Simply put: It can take away meaningful choices at the ballot box. Too often the outcome of a race is predetermined by how lines are drawn.
While elections in Ohio are evenly split for presidential races, elections for Congress are lopsided simply because of the way districts are drawn to favor one party over another. As a result, Summit County and the entire state have become poster children for gerrymandering.
Thatís why I am a strong proponent of redistricting reform. In the past two General Assemblies, Sen. Frank LaRose (R-Copley Township) and I have sponsored strong bipartisan legislation to change the redistricting process to make it fairer and more representative.
Unfortunately, reform efforts have stalled in the Ohio legislature. One year ago this week the Ohio Senate State Government Oversight Committee passed S.J.R. 1. The joint resolution would improve the redistricting process by requiring both political parties to agree on new maps. The legislation establishes a seven-member Redistricting Commission that would draw lines for U.S. House and state legislative districts. Unlike the current system, the commission could not approve a plan unless it receives at least one vote from a member of a minority party, guaranteeing bipartisan support. No longer would one party be able to impose its will and ignore the interests of voters.
Sadly, S.J.R. 1 has not been brought to the floor of the Ohio Senate for a vote. The legislation remains in limbo despite the fact that a nearly identical resolution passed the Ohio Senate in 2012 by a vote of 32-1. If S.J.R. 1 passes both chambers of the General Assembly, it would go on the ballot so the citizens of Ohio could decide.
At the beginning of the current General Assembly, Senate President Keith Faber (R-Celina) said passing redistricting reform was a top priority. And, good to his word, he is an original co-sponsor of this legislation. But President Faber has since deferred to House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R-Medina) who wants the stateís Constitutional Modernization Commission to consider the issue for possible amendments to our state constitution.
I am a member of that commission, but I believe a better approach would be for the commission to continue its deliberations while the General Assembly proceeds with legislation to go to the ballot. Pursuing both options gives us a better chance of success. Either pathway would work. The next step is for the Ohio Senate to pass S.J.R. 1 as soon as it reconvenes in the fall so the House has time to consider the measure before this session ends in December.
The overriding goal should be this: to pass a bipartisan redistricting reform plan, either through the legislature or the.commission by the end of the year, so it can be put before the voters on next yearís May ballot. History has taught us that the closer we get to the drawing of new district lines, the more resistant one party or another becomes to reforming the system. I am deeply concerned that a lack of urgency on this matter is a friend of the status quo.
I encourage my colleagues in the Ohio Senate and on the Constitutional Modernization Commission to move with a renewed sense of purpose. Redistricting reform is within reach if we act now.
Sawyer, an Akron Democrat, represents the 28th District in the Ohio Senate.