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Issue 1 Could Reduce Role of Politics in Drawing Statehouse Districts

Signs outside a polling place in Cleveland during 2014 elections. Photo by Joanna Richards

By Joanna Richards

Issue 1 is the least contentious of the three statewide ballot issues Ohio voters will decide November 3 rd.

It’s so uncontroversial in fact that voters don’t seem very interested – the City Club of Cleveland recently canceled a forum on it because few signed up to attend.

The measure would amend the state Constitution to reform the way state legislative districts are drawn. Vernon Sykes said that should earn applause – not yawns – from voters.

“There’s a lot of variables to determine who might win an election. But drawing of the lines is the single most significant factor to determine what party will win the election, in the general election,” he said.

Sykes is a Democrat, and co-chairman with Republican Matt Huffman of Fair Districts for Ohio. They spearheaded the legislation to get Issue 1 on the ballot when they were members of the Ohio House. It passed just before they left office at the end of 2014.  Now they want voters to approve it.

They say it would reduce gerrymandering – political tinkering with district maps.

The maps for both Congressional and state legislative districts get adjusted every 10 years after the U.S. Census to reflect population shifts. But in Ohio, as in many states, if one party controls much of state government, it can redraw the lines in its favor.

Recently, that’s been Republicans.

“The Lake Erie one, along the lake, is one of the most laughable districts in the country,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, referring to the state’s 9 th Congressional District.

After the last Census, the Republican-controlled state legislature merged parts of two Democratic Congressional districts into one, creating a new district connected by a spindly band of shoreline between Lakewood and Toledo.

“You see these districts like the one in Lake Erie that are squiggly lines, in some cases very long, thin lines that are sort of hugging voters together, and very carefully keeping other voters out,” Pepper said.

As a result, Northeast Ohioans once represented by two Democrats – Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur – are now served by one.

Pepper said the worst thing about gerrymandering is the creation of safe, uncompetitive districts, in effect limiting voter choice and squashing discussion of the issues.

“In the end, I think it’s one of the reasons voter turnout has gone down throughout the state,” Pepper said.

Issue 1 only deals with the process for drawing statehouse districts, not Congressional ones. But supporters say it would prevent at the statehouse level exactly the kind of funny line-drawing that combined Kucinich’s district with Kaptur’s.

That’s becoming more urgent, they say, as sophisticated voter mapping allows for ever-more-powerful political meddling in the redistricting process. 

Matt Huffman, of Fair Districts for Ohio, said Issue 1 would limit the ability to carve up communities, making districts more compact. And it would explicitly prohibit drawing boundaries for one party’s benefit.

“That really in effect limits the majority’s ability to abuse the minority, because they can’t do some of the things they may want to do under these new rules,” Huffman said.

The minority party would also get more of a say, through more representation and more power on the board of state elected officials that draws the district lines. For a map to last 10 years until the next Census, two minority-party members would have to approve. Otherwise, it would last four years.

The board would also have to hold public meetings and explain its reasoning. Its name would change from the Apportionment Board to the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

John Green, chairman of the politics department at the University of Akron, said Issue 1 would bring more transparency and fairness to a process long ruled by politics.

“The quality of the districts has a lot to do with how well democracy functions – both how well the voters are represented by the people who are elected, but also the choices the people have on the ballot…The better districts we can get, the better the democratic process works,” he said.

If Issue 1 passes and works, Green said, it could help restore Ohioans’ faith in elections, at least at the statehouse level. And it could help create momentum for similar reform at the Congressional level.

The reforms would first impact redistricting after the 2020 Census. Current districts are in place until 2022.

Correction: Both the text and audio of this story were revised to correct an erroneous assertion that the state's Apportionment Board creates Ohio's Congressional districts. The Ohio General Assembly draws the maps for Congressional districts. The Apportionment Board controls statehouse redistricting.