Three years after voting to change the way Ohio draws state legislative districts, Ohioans face a new proposed constitutional amendment aimed at taking much of the partisanship out of drawing a congressional map.
Republican and Democratic state legislators, following weeks of tortured negotiations that included a coalition pushing its own ballot issue, came together in February to approve a compromise plan to revamp the hyper-partisan congressional-redistricting process that has allowed the ruling party in the state to gerrymander districts to its benefit.
"It will force the parties to work together in a way they don’t have to do right now," said Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina. "What matters the most is, can we get a fair process that will work out for the citizens of Ohio in the long run."
State Issue 1 is backed by the state’s two main political parties and a number of organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Farm Bureau, the Ohio AFL-CIO and the NAACP Ohio chapter.
The proposal sets up new guidelines under which a congressional map must be drawn, such as requiring that at least 65 of 88 counties not be split into two districts, and that no more than five counties be split more than once. The current process has no limits on splitting counties.
The goal is to have a map drawn with significant bipartisan support, either by the legislature or, if that fails, a seven-member commission consisting of three statewide officeholders and four legislators. Supporters hope that this will create at least a handful of competitive seats.
If state officials can’t reach a bipartisan agreement, the majority party can draw a map, but it would last only four years instead of the usual 10, and the rules for drawing the map would be more restrictive.
"Gerrymandering has played a significant role in the selection of our congressional representatives, and something needed to be done," said Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights. "What we’ve created is an opportunity for fairness."
Critics say the current process reduces accountability among representatives by drawing districts that often leave them concerned only about being challenged in a primary from the fringe of their party.
They also say a gerrymandered map is anti-democratic, cutting against the will of voters.
In Ohio, for example, Republicans have held 75 percent of congressional seats (12 of 16) since the party redrew the map in 2011, even in years when 55 percent or fewer of the votes in the state's congressional races went to Republican candidates.
Experts in voting data and mapping software use surgical precision to slice maps with techniques commonly known as "packing" and "cracking." Districts are designed to maximize seats for the party in control, preferably without the need to spend much to defend them.
Packing stuffs like-minded voters into a single district, allowing the controlling party to create adjacent districts in its favor. Cracking dilutes like-minded voters across multiple districts.
Issue 1 supporters want a repeat of 2015, when Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a new process for drawing legislative districts. At the time, the legislature's Republican majority, pushed by then-U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohioan, declined to change the congressional process.
"Congressional-redistricting reform will change the future of Ohio politics and has the potential to change our government in Washington, too," said Secretary of State Jon Husted, a longtime advocate of a redistricting revamp.