In the fog of a presidential election and hot U.S. Senate race, a ballot issue that could alter the balance of power in the statehouse and the Ohio congressional delegation is taking a back seat.
Many voters, if they’ve heard about state Issue 2 at all, say they are confused by the ballot language and direct mailings that are appearing on doorsteps.
In the Dayton Daily News/Ohio Newspaper Organization Poll released Sept. 24, too few people knew about Issue 2 to provide meaningful results: 35 percent said they had heard “nothing at all” about it.
If approved, Issue 2 would put the responsibility of drawing legislative and congressional districts in the hands of a new citizen panel. Redistricting isn’t a thrilling term, but small changes can move voters around and make districts lean more Republican or Democratic, become more competitive or safe for lawmakers in office.
Voters First Ohio, the group behind Issue 2, says the lines have been drawn for years to favor incumbents and have effectively made hyper-partisan primary elections more important than general elections. Their solution: Remove politicians from the process.
Districts are redrawn every ten years to reflect population changes noted in the once-a-decade Census. State Senate and House districts are mapped and approved by the Ohio Apportionment Board composed of the governor, secretary of state, auditor and one state legislator from each party — all but one were Republicans in 2011. State lawmakers decide the boundaries of Ohio’s 16 U.S. House districts.
Last year, Republicans held the redistricting pen, but politicians on both sides of the aisle have used their majority status to muscle the other into keeping incumbents safe in their districts and stacking more middle-of-the-road districts to lean one way. Politicians against the proposal admit the current system is broken, but say Issue 2 isn’t the answer.
Issue 2 would create the Ohio Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission, a new panel of 12 members chosen by lot from a candidate pool winnowed by appellate court judges and party officials.
Any Ohioan who has voted in two of the previous three even-year general elections could apply to serve on the commission, provided they or an immediate family member have not been elected to federal or state office, worked for lawmakers or state officials or been a paid lobbyist. Applicants could not have made monetary contributions greater than $5,000 per two years to political campaigns or parties in the past five years.
Local officials such as city councilmen and mayors would be eligible. Jim Slagle, an attorney for the Campaign for Accountable Redistricting, said those officials would likely be cut during the selection process that grants party leaders the opportunity to eliminate candidates.
The commission would meet in public to draft and review publicly submitted plans according to the four criteria from last year’s citizen challenge by the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting:
* Preserve existing communities such as counties and townships,
* Balance districts based on voting history so they do not lean toward one party by more than 5 percent,
* Balance the number of districts that lean each way,
* Keep districts compact.
“These are the criteria that best capture fundamental values in our democracy,” said Dan Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law who helped draft the ballot initiative. “They’re values that will serve the interests of voters rather than the interests of partisan politicians.”
Proponents of Issue 2 say each district should reflect Ohio’s swing-state status.
In the 2010 election, 70 of Ohio’s 99 state representatives won their races by 20 points or more. Only three of the 33 senators elected in 2008 and 2010 won by less than 10 percent of the vote.
Statewide, Ohioans tend to line up on each side in similar numbers. The top statewide races in 2010 were won by 5 or fewer percent. The last five presidential elections were decided by fewer than 10 points in Ohio — George W. Bush won the state in 2004 by just 120,000 votes. More than 5.6 million Ohioans voted in that election.
Former Rep. Joan Lawrence, a Republican with the League of Women Voters who supports Issue 2, sponsored several failed redistricting reform bills in the 1980s.
“The process is manipulatable and it was manipulated and it would be no matter which party was in charge,” Lawrence said.
In 2005, voters slammed a Democrat-driven plan known as Issue 4 by a vote of 70 to 30 percent. A Republican-supported plan in 2006 failed to pass the General Assembly without support from Democrats. Democrats turned down another plan in 2010, certain they would sweep statewide offices and control the Apportionment Board. But Republicans won all statewide elected offices and picked up several seats in the House and Senate.
While politicians worked on their maps, the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting held a public competition to draw fair, competitive districts using the same Census and election data. The competition collected 53 congressional maps and a Republican Illinois state representative won the contest.
Contest sponsors including the Ohio League of Women Voters and Common Cause Ohio drafted constitutional amendment language that has become Issue 2. Meanwhile, a bipartisan panel of state lawmakers claimed they were working on a solution that has yet to materialize.
Issue 2 is intended to take the politics out of the system, but politicians and political forces are lining up on each side.
Good-government groups drafted Issue 2, but unions, Democrats and left-leaning organizations have since backed the proposal. Getting the issue on the ballot cost upward of $1.3 million, according to state campaign finance reports filed in July, and unions bankrolled the majority of the cost.
The Ohio Republican Party came out strong against the proposal at first, and a new group called Protect Your Vote Ohio formed to serve as the official opposition and sought help early on from Columbus lobbyists. Protect Your Vote’s expenditures won’t be known until after the election.
Nine states use appointed citizen commissions to draw legislative lines, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California’s 14-member commission, created in 2008, most closely resembles Ohio’s Issue 2 proposal.
The jury is still out there whether the commission worked. Experts say the process wasn’t as skewed toward the majority party — Democrats there — as it would have been had they controlled the process. But reports surfaced last year that showed Democrats hired people to falsely testify before the commissioners to build districts more favorable for incumbents. Tokaji said Ohio’s plan will succeed where California’s faltered because it requires the commission to balance the districts according to past voting records.
The Ohio State Bar Association opposed Issue 2, saying the process inappropriately gives appointment authority to judges and politicizes the judicial branch. Protect Your Vote’s Carlo LoParo said judges, who run in party primaries, could be pressured by party bosses to select their choice applicants for the initial group of 42.
“This is a worse solution than our present system,” LoParo said. “In the present system, there is transparency in the sense you know who’s making the decisions.”
Slagle said politicians will never support a plan that removes them from the process.
“They will mislead the public because that’s the only way they’ll defeat Issue 2,” Slagle said. “If voters understand what Issue 2 is, it will pass overwhelmingly.”
Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.