COMMENTARY: Ohio voters get to weigh in on gerrymandering

There is little debate about whether Americans are dissatisfied with their government.

The latest Gallup polling shows about six in 10 Americans disapprove of the job being done by the president we elected fewer than 18 months ago. And Congress fares worse: More than four of every five Americans disapprove of the job being done by their elected representatives.

Congressional approval, in fact, has been pathetically low for years. And, to be fair, there are many reasons for this.

First, it’s easy to be unhappy with a large entity comprised of hundreds of people of all political stripes. Inevitably, those people will make decisions — or fail to make decisions — that leave one group of voters or another dissatisfied, if not downright unhappy.

There is also a sense that government is not responsive to the voters. While Democrats are understandably unhappy with a Congress that is controlled by Republicans, even Republican approval of Congress has plummeted to 24 percent, according to Gallup. So, it’s fair to say discontent is broad.

And, yet, if congressional elections were held today, Americans likely would not realize the wholesale change that public opinion polls indicate they desire. And one of the big reasons is the way politicians protect their own when it comes to drawing congressional district lines.

It’s called gerrymandering, and it’s been used almost since the beginning of the Republic by politicians of both stripes to further partisan advantages and political careers, usually at the expense of truly representative government. It’s one big reason that more than 95 percent of congressional incumbents get re-elected every two years, despite those overall congressional approval ratings that are, frankly, in the toilet.

The good news? Voters in Ohio have a chance to do something about it before district lines are drawn again in 2021.

The state Legislature, faced with a grassroots effort that gathered more than 200,000 signatures of people opposed to gerrymandering, voted earlier this year to place Issue 1 on the May 8 ballot. If voters approve, Issue 1 would require that all future drawing of state congressional districts have buy-in from lawmakers in both major political parties — not just the legislators who happen to be in control at the time.

Perhaps equally important, Issue 1 would require transparency in the redistricting process and would establish guidelines for how districts are to be drawn. No longer would it be OK for a group of politicians to do the work of redistricting behind closed doors, with the sole aim of furthering their own partisan ambitions.

Issue 1 would require that mapmakers form districts roughly equal in population and — to the extent possible — leave counties, cities or townships intact. Specific language in the proposed law limits the number of counties that could be split and requires that cities not be split unnecessarily.

In our own area, for example, the current congressional map has Clark, Champaign and Greene counties in three different districts — a departure from historical trends. Montgomery County forms the western edge of a district that stretches into central Ohio. Butler County is part of the same district that includes Clark County, but the mapmakers had to snake their way around Dayton to make that happen. And these aren’t even the worst examples of the political manipulations that went into the state’s current congressional map.

While Issue 1 would represent a significant change for the better, it’s not a radical step for Ohio. In 2015, this state’s voters overwhelmingly approved another Issue 1, which created a redistricting commission for drawing state House and Senate districts, beginning in 2021. That ballot measure was approved by more than 70 percent of voters and passed in each of the state’s 88 counties.

This year’s ballot proposal takes a different approach: It allows the Legislature to get first crack at drawing new district lines, but it requires them to hold public hearings and to reach bipartisan consensus on a final plan that would then be sent to the governor for signing. If lawmakers can’t reach an agreement or the governor vetoes the consensus plan, the job of drawing districts would fall to the same redistricting commission created in the 2015 vote.

What’s the downside, you ask? It’s difficult to find one. Issue 1 has the support of both major political parties, and the proposed constitutional amendment was approved unanimously in the state Senate and by a 83 to 10 vote in the state House.

Does it mean that any candidate will have a fighting chance to win a congressional seat, regardless of party? Probably not. Compact districts will almost certainly reflect common interests among the people of that district, which could benefit one party or the other in any given election.

But passing Issue 1 will make it much more difficult for one party to draw a map that virtually guarantees its hold on power and, in the process, subverts the democratic process.

Retired journalist Dale Leach is with the Fair Districts = Fair Elections Coalition, which is supporting Issue 1.