Voters will have a chance to change the way politicians draw state legislative district lines when they consider State Issue 1 on November 3.
“The drawing of the lines is the single most significant factor in determining who wins,” said former State Rep. Vernon Sykes, an Akron Democrat who with former state Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, is co-chairing the Fair Districts for Ohio campaign promoting State Issue 1.
Supporters say the proposed constitutional amendment would upend what has been a largely partisan exercise that allows the party in power to create districts packed with its supporters while marginalizing supporters of the minority party.
Lines are redrawn for the Ohio Legislature every 10 years to reflect population shifts.
Previous efforts to reform the process have failed, typically with the party in power opposing any change. Voters have soundly rejected constitutional amendments reforming the process three times, most recently in 2012.
Issue 1 is unique in that it has bipartisan support and has no organized opposition.
“Of all the things I think the Democrats are dead wrong on I finally have found something I can agree with them on. We should pass Issue 1,” said Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.
David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said he wishes the proposal would take effect immediately rather than 2021 when the next redistricting occurs, because the current districts so clearly favor Republicans “there is almost no competition.”
Common Cause and the League of Women Voters are among nearly 100 organizations and political parties that have endorsed the amendment. It was placed on the ballot by the Ohio Legislature in a strongly bipartisan vote last year and is supported by some of the very groups that opposed the state legislative and congressional redistricting reform proposal that voters rejected in 2012.
“From a good government standpoint it will create better, more competitive races, which we hope in turn will lead to better leaders elected,” said Phil Parker, president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. “The way it’s been redistricted in the past has not necessarily allowed us to have good, competitive races.”
Truly competitive races for state legislative seats become less likely when boundary lines are drawn to favor one party, a process known as “gerrymandering,” said Catherine Turcer, of Common Cause Ohio.
“When the map-makers have more of an impact on an election than the voters do there is definitely something wrong,” Turcer said. “I think people want good, representational democracy.”
Critics of the current process say that drawing districts favoring one party can lead to more ideologically extreme candidates winning.
“When you have the more ideologically extreme folks from both sides you have a lot of difficulty coming up with sensible solutions that suit the middle, which is most of us,” Turcer said.
Federal law requires that districts be as equal in population as possible, that all parts of a district be contiguous, and that districts not dilute minority voting strength or discriminate against voters based on race or ethnicity, according to the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
But there is no law against packing a district with a single political party’s supporters, dividing supporters of one party into several different districts or drawing a district’s lines to reach out to an area distant from the rest in order to pull in certain partisan supporters.
Issue 1 would put into the state Constitution rules that encourage creation of districts that are politically competitive and drawn as compactly as possible with a goal of not breaking up communities.
“It’s a common sense proposal that fair districts equal fair elections,” said Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
A seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission — made up of the governor, secretary of state, auditor and two legislative appointees from each political party — could approve a 10-year map only with the votes of two minority party members. If enough minority party members don’t sign on, the map would only be in place for four years before a new commission would redraw lines.
“So this concept keeps majority rule, but it creates additional minority party rights where there were almost none before,” Huffman said.
The commission’s work would have to be transparent, unlike the closed meetings that led to the 2011 maps. Meetings would have to be public, the maps publicly displayed and a letter produced explaining any plan adopted by a simple majority vote. If the board breaks the rules, the Ohio Supreme Court could order the map redrawn.
“It makes it more difficult for the majority to cut-and-paste the districts the way they want,” Sykes said.
Issue 1 would have no impact on the drawing of Congressional district lines, which is done by the state legislature and has generated even greater partisan furor. Leaving Congressional redistricting reform out of the amendment “eliminated a lot of opposition,” said Sykes.
“We decided not to bite off too much and get choked on it,” he said.
Davis, Turcer and Secretary of State Jon Husted all said the next step is reforming Congressional redistricting.
State legislative lines currently are drawn by the five-member state Apportionment Board, made up of the same mix of officials as the proposed new commission, except without two of the legislative appointees.
The most recent redistricting was in 2011. Board members were Gov. John Kasich, Husted, Auditor of State David Yost and then-Ohio Senate President Thomas Niehaus, all Republicans. Then-House Minority Leader Armond Budish was the only Democrat on the board.
The districts they drew favored Republicans in 23 of 33 Senate districts and 62 of 99 House districts, according to statistics compiled by the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting, which used voting results from the 2008 presidential election and the 2010 governor, auditor and secretary of state elections.
The percentage of voters from each major political party in a certain district is called the partisan political index. The 2012 and 2014 results could show some changes in the current political index, but the one using those earlier elections was in play when the Ohio Reapportionment Board drew the lines amid massive partisan controversy in 2011.
At the time, Budish issued a statement saying the Republican maps “take partisan gerrymandering to a new extreme” and “quarantined” Democratic voters into a third of the districts.
“These new districts divide communities more than 250 times and disenfranchise voters throughout the state,” Budish said.
The Ohio Supreme Court later found the new maps to be constitutional.
An analysis of the partisan index of the legislative districts by this newspaper found that the 12 House districts and four Senate districts with the highest percentage difference between the number of Democrats and Republicans all tilted Democratic and are held by Democratic legislators. All are in urban areas.
District 10 held by state Rep. Bill Patmon, D-Cleveland, ranked first with Democrats favored by 74.3 percentage points. State Sen. Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights, represents District 25 near Cleveland, in which Democrats have a 66.8 percentage-point advantage.
Republicans have the wide advantage in far more districts. State Rep. Jim Buchy, R-Greenville, has the Republican district with the largest advantage — 46.3 percentage points over Democrats. Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, in District 12, has widest Senate Republican advantage — 36.4 percentage points.
Only 20 House districts and seven Senate districts have a partisan index difference of 10 percentage points or less, the analysis showed.
Those numbers do not reflect the reality in Ohio statewide, which Husted said is about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
The League of Women Voters of Ohio used the political index to accurately call 100 percent of the Ohio Senate races in 2012 and 2014. The group used the index to accurately predict all but three House races in 2014 and all but two in 2012.
That leads to cynicism and lack of interest in voting, said Susan Hesselgesser, executive director of the League of Women Voters of the Greater Dayton Area.
“People are sort of fed up and don’t feel like they are getting a fair shake,” Hesselgesser said.
No one is under the illusion that Issue 1 would end partisanship in the drawing of districts.
“If we think this is the perfect solution we are being naive,” said Paul Leonard, a political science professor at Wright State University, former Dayton mayor and former Democratic state legislator who supports Issue I. “You just can’t take politics out of the redistricting process.”’
Husted said there will be practical realities to consider when the map drawers do their work.
“In the end, this doesn’t mean that every district is going to be 50-50 because that is not how people live,” Husted said. “We tend to self-segregate ourselves. It’s hard to draw a Democratic district along the border with Indiana and it’s hard to draw a Republican district across northeast Ohio.”
However, Husted said, “broadly it will be more competitive” and he believes it will lead to a more evenly divided Ohio Legislature. He said Ohio would be one of the few states in the nation to reform its redistricting process in an effort to minimize partisanship.
Supporters said Issue 1 reforms would be better than the current system, which has been in place since 1967 after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964 threw out as unconstitutional Ohio’s practice of giving each county just one House representative regardless of population.
“This will create fairer districts, fairer elections,” Turcer said. ” Is this a magic wand? Definitely not. But it does significantly improve the power of our votes.”