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What next for Ohio redistricting?

Legal News Reporter

Published: November 30, 2012

Issue 2, Ohio’s ballot initiative to create a new model for congressional and legislative redistricting, went down to defeat handily in the last election.

That is likely not, however, the end of this story. Many parties who had worked on both sides of this issue, including the Ohio State Bar Association and the League of Women Voters, have already stated that Ohio’s method for creating congressional and legislative districts will be getting a further look.

There are three potential methods that those who want a change in Ohio’s decennial redistricting procedures are looking to: Ohio’s Legislative Taskforce on Redistricting, a commission charged with looking at changes to the Ohio Constitution and a return to the ballot box.

The actual processes for redrawing Ohio’s congressional and legislative districts are too complex to cover in this article, but a very good overview of the process can be found here:

According to the website of the Ohio Secretary of State, “Every 10 years, following the decennial census, Ohio General Assembly and Congressional districts are redrawn to reflect changes in the state’s population in two parallel, but separate processes. The goal of each is to preserve the important one person-one vote principle – that all citizens are equally represented at the Statehouse and in the United States Capitol.”

However, the last redistricting, based upon the 2010 census, came far from meeting that goal, said Tina Merlitti, the head of the Akron chapter of the League of Women Voters.

The LWV is a nonpartisan group that has been working on the issue of Ohio’s political districts since 1967, said Merlitti. To her organization, the process is simply unfair and has been for many years, regardless of which party is in power.

Ohio Secretary of State John Husted was recently quoted in the Columbus Dispatch espousing similar sentiments.

“It is an outdated process that is leading to a toxic political environment, because everybody is so partisan,” Husted said on Nov. 12. “And it’s not because they’re bad people. It’s because the way the districts are drawn. If all I have to do is win a primary, I behave differently in office.”

The last Ohio redistricting occurred in 2011, when one political party—in this case, the Republican Party—controlled the process. The result was a redrawing of the political map which seemed at the time to give the upper hand to that party in a majority of those races.

That is the way that the election turned out.

The Democratic Party presidential candidate won the state by a margin of 50 to 48 percent. That party’s Senatorial candidate won by an even larger margin, 50 to 45 percent.

Down the ballot, however, the party breakdown was far more favorable to the party that had redrawn the districts in 2011.

“If you look at the map,” said Merlitti, “all 16 Congressional districts were won by the party that the [2011] redistricting favored.”

The state elected 12 Republican and four Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The four Democrats are based in Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo and Youngstown.

Merlitti also noted that in every Ohio Senate district on the ballot, the election was “won by the party that the district was tilted towards.” Additionally, in 97 of the 99 Ohio House districts, the election was won by the party the redistricting favored, she said.

Merlitti went on to say that, “You can see from the results of the voting that all 16 congressional districts fell the way that they were drawn, with 12 Republicans and four Democrats, even though Obama won the state by over 100,000 votes.

“It is interesting how the congressional districts could be so skewed. For all 16 districts to fall in that way tells me something, in such a close race for the presidency and the Senate. One party also has a two-to-one advantage in the Statehouse, and those (Statehouse) districts were also drawn in favor of the party in power. No one says that’s right or a good way to do it.”

Jim Slagle, who managed the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting in 2011, said that, “We spent millions on election campaigns, had… voters going to the polls, yet in 131 out 133 Congress, state Senate and Ohio House elections, all we need to do was look at the political indexes we identified last fall when the lines were drawn.”

The Ohio State Bar Association has also come out with a statement suggesting that the state change the way that electoral districts are drawn. When redistricting was framed as Issue 2 in the recent election, the OSBA came out with a strongly-worded statement against it.

That negative position, said OSBA spokesman Ken Brown, was not based upon the organization’s positive view of the current system.

Rather, he said, “[T]he only reason that the OSBA weighed in was to discuss the portion of the proposal that included the judiciary.”

A part of the language of the Constitutional amendment that comprised Issue 2 put the judiciary, and, in particular, the appellate bench, in the middle of creating a neutral panel that would have overseen the redrawing of Ohio’s congressional and legislative districts every 10 years.

“There were and are a lot of very strong opinions on Issue 2,” said Brown. “We all agreed that the system used to create these districts is in need of review, but not on the basis of change for change’s sake. Placing the judiciary in the middle was a problem.”

Issue 2 proposed that appellate judges become involved in selecting members of a redistricting commission. The provision would have also required the Ohio Supreme Court to select a plan if the commission could not do so.

Brown emphasized that, had Issue 2 not put the judiciary into such a prominent position within the redistricting system, the organization would have probably stayed out of the fight.

The OSBA always tries to stay away from the political side of things,” he said. “We don’t as an organization weigh in on political matters.”

Instead, now that Issue 2 is history, the OSBA has suggested that the newly-formed Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission, in conjunction with the standing legislative committee on redistricting, take up this issue.

That commission was created by the Ohio legislature last year to review the state constitution and make sure that it is up-to-date.

Ohio also had a ballot issue this past election—Issue 1—which would have called a constitutional convention. That issue, like Issue 2, failed.

But, according to Brown, that failure is relatively moot, because of that new commission.

“The commission is an alternative to calling a constitutional convention,” said Brown. “We have not had a constitutional convention since 1912, but these kinds of constitutional commissions are put together from time to time.”

Ohio has had three constitutions since becoming a state in 1803. The last and current state constitution was written in 1912.

Ohio’s redistricting process is important enough that the OSBA would like to see some action taken by virtually any means. “Other legislators may also want to take the lead on this. It needs a fair hearing, and that is what we are calling for.”

The OSBA sent a letter to that effect to the co-chairs of that commission, Republican House Speaker William G. Batchelder of Medina County and Democratic Rep. Vernon Sykes of Akron, saying the commission was well-suited to address the topic and asking it to make it a top priority. The current president of OSBA is also a member of the commission, which has 32 members.

The commission consists of 12 members of the legislature from various caucuses, and 20 experts in the field of Ohio’s constitution. Meber who come from the state legislature will not be able to serve on the commission after their terms of office are over, Sykes said.

Both Batchelder, speaking to the Columbus Dispatch, and Sykes, speaking to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, have agreed with the OSBA’s proposed agenda item for the commission.

Speaker Batchelder’s office has not yet returned calls from this paper asking for comment. However, Rep. Sykes agreed to talk with us about this issue and about the commission in general.

Sykes, like many others, believes that the commission taking up the issue of redistricting is, “a good idea. It is time that this issue was addressed in a comprehensive way. Different groups tried, but the main thing right now is really there is a broad-based agreement that something should be done to change the way that congressional and legislative districts are drawn in the state. I will recommend that this issue is placed on the agenda.”

The next time that the legislative maps are redrawn under the current law will be following the 2020 census, which gives any groups who are trying to change the process, including the constitutional commission, at least six or seven years to attempt to implement any changes to the redistricting system.

The earliest that any change to redistricting could affect an election based upon a ballot-based change to the Ohio Constitution is 2015.

Talking about the commission itself, Sykes said that it “is a deliberative body that represents a cross-section of people around the state: scholars, professors, law persons and members of the legislature. It is well-equipped and prepared to deal with issues of modernizing and updating the constitution.”

The commission has no power in and of itself, Sykes said. It can only make recommendations to the legislature, the first wave of which are supposed to be delivered by the end of January. Theoretically, the legislature would then create constitutional ballot issues based on those recommendations, and put the issues on the ballot in a future election season.

“The commission will determine or schedule,” Sykes said. “We have seven years initially, so we will be able to deliberate and take our time. The process will give the opportunity for input from the public on issues that we address.”

Besides the redistricting issue, Sykes would also like to see the commission take up several other possible recommendations for changing the state’s Constitution, he said.

The next obvious agenda item after congressional redistricting would be a reformatting of the election process. “There should be a review of election laws, guidelines, and provisions,” Sykes said. “The state government’s administrative policy regarding the election process needs to emphasize improving access, sharing information, and ensuring the maximum participation of the public. There should be something in the provisions of the Constitution to provide guidance and oversight and to make sure, and particularly emphasize, (election rights) and consider it to be a major policy for the state.”

Sykes would also like to see early childhood education addressed by the commission.

“The state of Florida passed a provision that required the state to provide equality in early childhood education,” Sykes said.” “Because of that, the state is moving forward and achieving higher scores that are actually beyond belief. Ohio should consider including early childhood education in its constitution, as well. It should be a major component of state government. The state constitution should provide educational opportunities for school age children. People start from different points, but if you have a good start when you are four or five years old, then you will be adequate when you enter first grade.”

Sykes would also like to see legislator’s term limits addressed by the commission. He himself is serving in his last term in the Ohio House because of Ohio’s term limit rules.

“Term limits should also be addressed, whether they would be changed or eliminated,” he said. “I think that it is best to give the commission the opportunity to do research on this issue—to look around at the history and impact of term limits to determine what or how we decide to make a change.”

All of this conversation started with Voters First Ohio, the coalition led by the Ohio LWV, placing Issue 2 on the ballot to begin with, said Merlitti.

We would love to see something come out of the commission, but we are tired of waiting around,” she said. “If they won’t do something, we will just take something back to the voters.”

Merlitti feels that the effort to bring Issue 2 to the ballot has created some momentum, that it is an issue that will not go away, and that all of the hard work that went into creating and publicizing the issue is not at all in vain.

“The coalition partners are still meeting,” said Merlitti. “We are going to keep working on this. I’m sure that you’ll be seeing more about this,” said Merlitti. “If nothing else, we got the people’s attention!”