Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s demand for an end to political “gerrymandering” is being touted as a possible game-changer by those who want to reform how congressional district lines are drawn.
“Obviously the governor’s voice is a big deal. He’s more influential in that process than anybody,” said Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican who began advocating for redistricting reform about 10 years ago.
“I’ve not known John Kasich to be the kind of person that says something and then doesn’t follow up on it.”
Ohioans in November overwhelmingly approved reforming state legislative redistricting when they passed State Issue 1, a constitutional amendment revamping the system. But some Republican legislative leaders have said they want to wait to see how that new process works before changing the way congressional lines are drawn.
House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, and State Sen. Bill Coley, R-West Chester, chairman of the Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee, both said it would be better to wait.
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Rosenberger supports congressional redistricting reform but believes the state reforms “should be given a chance to work and make sure there are no unintended consequences or further reforms needed,” said Brad Miller, spokesman for Rosenberger.
Coley agrees. “We want to make sure that it works smoothly,” he said. “I’m unaware of any scientific way of doing something that doesn’t require a test before you go to wholesale implementation. The only way I can test it is to actually do it. That will be done in the next redistricting process that takes place.”
But advocates for reform say they’re not willing to wait. And, they say, it would be a long wait because of how the process works.
Districts are redrawn every 10 years to adjust for population changes. That means, a new system for redrawing Statehouse district lines won’t be used until 2021, when a seven-member redistricting commission determines lines that take effect in 2022.
Waiting to see how well that works would effectively push any changes to congressional line drawing to 2031, said Catherine Turcer, policy analyst for Common Cause Ohio, which along with the League of Women Voters fought for Issue 1 and supports reform of congressional redistricting.
“What’s good for the Statehouse is good for Congress,” Turcer said. “It’s time for both legislative districts to have good fair districts because fair districts bring fair elections. There’s no reason to wait. If we don’t build on the momentum now we may never get redistricting reform.”
Issue 1 sets rules encouraging that Statehouse districts be more compact and competitive. It expands the commission that redistricts legislative seats, and while it leaves the majority party in control it gives minority members more of a voice and adds transparency to the process so that the public can see what is happening.
Meanwhile, congressional districts are drawn by the state legislature. Reform of that process was left out of Issue 1 when the Ohio legislature placed it on the ballot.
Redistricting reform is designed to reduce partisan “gerrymandering,” the practice of drawing legislative districts to favor one party or the other. The political party in power in state government controls the process and critics say the Republican-drawn congressional maps give Republicans an overwhelming advantage in Ohio even though the state is about evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Ohio’s 16-member delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives includes 12 Republicans and four Democrats.
In the 2014 General Election 57 percent of Ohioans voted for Republicans for the U.S. House and 47 percent of Ohioans voted for Democrats, according to the League of Women Voters Predictable Results report issued earlier this year. But with most districts drawn to favor Republicans, 75 percent of the winners were Republican and 25 percent were Democrats, which “represents a high level of disproportionality,” according to the report.
In fact, each district’s partisan political index — the proportion of Democrat and Republican voters in the district — “perfectly predicted the winner” in each of Ohio’s Congressional districts in 2012 and 2014, the report said. Republicans won in districts that favored the GOP and Democrats won those drawn to include more members of their party.
Kasich says drawing districts to strongly favor one party over another encourages political extremism.
He addressed the subject in response to a question about the causes of federal government dysfunction posed during his Dec. 20 town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., where Kasich is campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination.
“To me the biggest problem we have is in a gerrymandered environment,” said Kasich. “That’s when you draw funny districts.”
“So what happens is I’m a Republican. They give me a safe Republican district and I gotta watch for the extreme on my right,” Kasich said. “And if I’m a Democrat district I have to look for the extreme on the left. And it just polarizes people. That is a problem.”
At a year-end news conference in Ohio on Dec. 22, Kasich said he supports a dramatic reform of the redistricting process.
“This will be something I’m going to do whether I’m elected president or I’m whether I’m here,” he said.
“I think we need to eliminate gerrymandering. We’ve got to figure out a way to do it,” Kasich said. “We’ve got to be aggressive on it and we’ve got to have more competitive districts.”
Both Turcer and Husted said they previously had not heard Kasich speak so forcefully in favor of redistricting reform.
“His support of Congressional redistricting reform is essential right now,” Turcer said. “I don’t think anybody who looks at a congressional map could claim that there is no manipulation of districts going on.”
Current system defended
Coley said the lines drawn do not favor Republicans and that holding off on reform until 2031 doesn’t solidify his party’s hold on power since there is a congressional election every two years.
The state legislature drew congressional lines that meet the requirements of the U.S. Constitution and are true to “one-man-one vote” and the Voting Rights Act, Coley said.
“We not only protect all the majority-minority districts (but) we created a second district in Columbus that is not a minority-majority district but it is definitely a minority-leaning district,” Coley said.
Then-U.S. House Speaker John Boehner opposed including congressional redistricting in Issue 1, according to former State Rep. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, who was an Issue 1 campaign co-chair. Husted said there is “no question that the congressional delegation is very influential in this discussion, both Democrats and Republicans.”
He said the current system works well for incumbents, who generally get re-elected in their districts and may not feel motivated to support a change.
Turcer and other reformers say they will push for a citizen-initiated reform if the state legislature doesn’t fix the congressional redistricting process.
Members of Congress should take note of that, said Husted, and get on board with a state legislature-driven reform proposal.
“The (current) system is bad for all of us,” Husted said. “If we fix the system we can fix what people don’t like about politics in Congress right now: that it’s really run for partisan interests and not for the public interests.”