- Laura A. Bischoff Columbus bureau
After decades of fighting and months of intense negotiations, Democrats, Republicans and non-partisan watchdog groups are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in favor of a new way of drawing congressional districts.
The Ohio House on Tuesday voted 83-10 in favor of a resolution that passed the Senate on a unanimous vote on Monday night. The proposed constitutional amendment will be placed on the May primary ballot for Ohio voters to consider.
Congressional district maps, which are drawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census, play a huge role in who represents Ohio.
The proposal sets up a three-step process:
— The General Assembly may approve a 10-year map if it three-fifths majority in both the House and Senate agree, along with at least half of the members of the minority and majority parties. It would require the governor’s signature.
— If the Legislature fails to adopt a map, the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission would be take over. It may pass a 10-year map if it has at least four votes, including two from the minority party.
— If the commission fails to act, the responsibility returns to the Legislature, which can pass a 10-year map with three-fifths majority vote, including one-third of the minority party members. It would require the governor’s signature.
If the three steps don’t result in a 10-year map, the majority party controlling the Legislature may adopt a four-year map, providing it follows guardrails to protect against unduly favoring a political party or incumbents and against splitting up counties into multiple congressional districts.
“I believe that the way district lines are draw has a big impact on the way our chambers function here at the state level and on the way that the chambers function at the federal level,” said state Sen. Frank LaRose, a Republican who is running for Secretary of State and who has pushed for redistricting changes.
State Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat running for Secretary of State, credited citizen groups for pushing lawmakers to act saying that Ohio’s current gerrymandered map is the worst in state history. “One party is walking away with three-quarters of the districts when they get roughly half of the votes,” Clyde said.
State Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati, voted against the plan, saying it failed to include a line that voting is an essential right for all Ohioans. State Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain, opposed the plan because he said his local counties could still be split into multiple districts and there are no additional protections for racial minorities.
State Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, a primary negotiator on the new plan, said while he supports the deal, he has concerns because of the current political environment and the powerful urge to gerrymander maps. “Just think about it, we have to write bipartisanship into our constitution,” he said.
The proposed constitutional amendment won support from Fair Districts = Fair Elections, a coalition of some 30 groups seeking redistricting reform. Fair Districts had been collecting the required 306,000 valid voter signatures to place a congressional redistricting plan on the November ballot.
Fair Districts said it is now supporting the legislative plan that will go on the May ballot.
Related: Issue 1 cruises to victory
Congressional redistricting reform has been an elusive goal for decades in Ohio.
Currently, the political party that controls the General Assembly is in charge of drawing the congressional district maps every 10 years. Minority party approval is not required. The result is maps with odd-shaped districts that are drawn to maximize the majority-party’s chances of winning the most congressional districts. The GOP holds 12 of Ohio’s 16 seats in Congress.
Gerrymandered maps in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are being challenged in federal courts.
House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, said citizens don’t feel like members of Congress are listening to them and it has led to dysfunction and partisanship in Washington. The reform plan isn’t perfect but represents a big improvement, he said.
“This is about responsive government,” he said. “At the end of the day, voters deserve to be heard and they deserve to know that their votes count.”
House members opposing the resolution: John Becker, John Bocceri, Tom Brinkman, Bill Dean, Candice Keller, Adam Miller, Dan Ramos, Nino Vitale and Paul Zeltwanger.