Issue 2 seeks to change how we draw congressional district lines

By MARC KOVAC C-N Capital Bureau Published:

COLUMBUS -- State Issue 2 on the November general election ballot is an attempt by backers to remove politicians from the process of drawing the state's legislative and congressional district lines.

Proponents, including many Democrats, the Ohio League of Women Voters and union groups, say the proposed setup would be an improvement over the lopsided maps finalized by mostly Republicans last year that improved the prospects of continued GOP control of districts.

"The way our district lines are drawn [is] intended to maximize the advantage that incumbents and the party in power holds while minimizing the extent to which every citizens vote really matters," said Dan Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University and a member of the Voters First committee behind the ballot issue.

He added, "Our lines have been drawn in a way that basically ensures that politicians won't be held accountable to the people."

But opponents, including many Republicans, the Ohio chamber and other business groups, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Ohio Right to Life and prominent judge and lawyer groups, say the issue is flawed, will cost millions of dollars to implement and won't ensure politicians are removed from the process.

"Issue 2 sounds good on the surface, but this would be a permanent change in Ohio's constitution," said Terry Casey, a Republican consultant speaking on behalf of the opposition group Protect Your Vote Ohio. "And clearly, as you read the details of the seven pages, you realize there's a lot of problems, and the difficulty if by chance this gets approved, this is something we'll be stuck with in the state constitution forever and ever."

Under the current system outlined in the state constitution, reapportionment of state legislative lines is completed every 10 years, after new census statistics pinpoint population changes. A five-member board oversees the process, headed by the governor and including the secretary of state, state auditor and two members from the legislature (one from each party).

That process is separate from congressional redistricting, which is handled by state lawmakers, who pass legislation adopting new boundaries after considering population shifts.

Both processes were completed last year, under the control of Republicans. The resulting maps, while receiving some Democratic support, were criticized by Democrats, who said they were locked out of the process and the new districts leaned heavily in favor of the GOP.

That's where Voters First entered the picture. The group circulated petitions and gathered signatures to force the issue onto the November ballot.

Issue 2 proposes the creation of a 12-member citizens commission that would include four Republicans, four Democrats and four people with no partisan affiliation, chosen by lot by a panel of appeals court judges following a specified selection process.

Paid lobbyists, politicians and large campaign contributors would be among those prohibited from serving.

Districts would be drawn following specified criteria that take into account compactness and competition,

"It would ensure that the district lines are fair, that they are balanced, that they're competitive, that they track community boundaries and that those districts are compact," Tokaji said. "The bottom line is that Issue 2 will hand the power over our political system back to the people, take it away from politicians serving their own interest at the expense of the public interest."

The legislature would be required to provide funding for the commission's work, though Tokaji said the amendment specifies that only "necessary expenses" would have to be covered. And the new commission would begin its work immediately, redrawing maps that were completed last year.

But opponents say the amendment, while laudable in its goals, has too many problems.

"Ohio needs to reform its redistricting process, but this is not reform," Husted, the state's chief elections official who pushed his own reform package as a lawmaker, said earlier this year when asked about the issue. "This has the potential to be just as bad or worse than the current system... It's time that both political parties stop trying to end run the process and sit down with one another and try to do something that's fair and that they can agree upon."

Among other concerns, opponents mention the potential costs. An analysis completed by the state's Office of Budget and Management estimates that it will cost between $9 million and $12.9 million within the first two years of adoption, with another $2 million-plus possible through 2020.

Opponents also say appointed members will not be accountable to the voting public and the criteria for drawing districts aren't very clearly defined.

"This thing is very vague, very confusing," Casey said, adding later, "This is a mess that's going to be expensive ...."

Casey and others are advocating for a separate process for reviewing the existing redistricting and reapportionment processes instead of supporting Issue 2.

"I think it'd be much better to go back to the drawing board and figure out some better ways to do this, decide what is the single or the two most [important] criteria and write it in such a way that can't be hijacked by either side," Casey said.

He added that having one party in control of the process doesn't necessarily mean that party will control election outcomes.

"Are there problems under the current plan? Yes," Casey said. "But even, for example, in the past decade, the Republicans had control, but the Democrats managed to get control of the Ohio House. And I can remember back when the Democrats had control and, in some cases, they got control and kept it and in some cases the map they drew resulted in the other party taking over."

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