A national political expert visited Columbus recently to talk about the push to change the way state lawmakers’ districts are drawn.
The expert says Ohioans have an opportunity to achieve something rare. Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow explains.
“That is not a natural community in any sense of the word.”
Michael Li is pointing to a district map drawn in California. One particular district is just a sliver of land that snakes up the west side of the state.
“It stretches almost 200 miles up the coast of California, here it’s barely there—in fact—there’s a point in which it disappears at high tide,” said Li.
Li’s notes drew laughter but also point out the odd realities of gerrymandering. This is when one party can draw legislative districts to benefit one party over another.
Li is the redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. He came to Ohio to talk about redistricting reform with supporters of Issue 1 on November’s ballot. It would create a bipartisan commission of elected leaders who would draw the maps of districts for state representatives and state senators. That commission would have to abide by specific rules to make sure the districts are a fair reflection of the state.
Other states have reformed redistricting through ballot initiatives put before voters by citizens’ groups. That’s what makes Ohio’s plan so rare to Li. He says the fact that Ohio’s lawmakers worked to come up with a bipartisan plan to put on the ballot is special.
“They found a path forward with something that actually looks like a really good reform that has a unique Ohio twist and that perhaps is a model for reforms in places like North Carolina and Virginia where it would also have to go through the Legislature,” Li said.
Republican Senator John Eklund of Chardon told the crowd that his own district lines were dramatically changed during the last drawing in 2011. He said the confusion around the district shift went against his push for a fair and transparent government.
“If a system exists through which that type of engagement and that type of involvement and that type of appreciation for what the heck is going on is absent, we are down the road to perdition which is—at the end of the day—a loss of faith among the people for our system of government,” said Eklund.
Member of the proposed committee under Issue 1 would be elected officials including the governor, auditor and secretary of state along with four legislators, two from each party.
Li says this again makes Ohio different from other states, such as California. California created an independent commission comprised of non-elected officials. According to Li, the idea of using elected officials has its pros and cons.
“That can be very valuable because politicians actually do understand the political geography and the needs of the state in some ways arguably better than an ordinary citizen can—there’s some risk of course because they also have ulterior motives,” Li said.
The difference between an independent commission and an elected-official commission is an important distinction to make. In 2012, citizens did put their own reform on the ballot which would create an independent commission. Many leaders, including Secretary of State Jon Husted, asked Ohioans to vote that measure down with the promise that he and lawmakers would work on a proposal that would use elected officials.
Eklund said it’s important to have a commission that has to answer to the voters.
“And I get concerned about the extent to which so-called outside experts who maybe have much bigger brains than mine but to whom are they accountable and under what circumstances,” Eklund said.
Accountability in the Issue 1 plan comes with the required buy-in from the minority party. Four of the seven members would have to agree on a map for it to last a full ten years. Without that agreement, the map would only last four years. Some critics have suggested that could lead to confusion, and they also note that the first map wouldn’t go into effect until 2021.
But Issue 1 has widespread support from nearly every political and voting advocacy group, including the two major political parties.
The group said their biggest opponent on Issue 1 is apathy, urging supporters to get out the word and drive people to vote.