TOLEDO (Feb. 21, 2012) — With the primary election in two weeks, the Ohio Supreme Court had little choice but to allow the state’s gerrymandered legislative districts to stand this year. But by agreeing to hear arguments about the constitutionality of the maps for elections after 2012, the justices gave hope to voters who would like to see politics taken out of redistricting.
The Ohio Constitution requires that legislative districts be compact and contiguous, and that counties and municipalities should not be split unnecessarily to create them. It is a widely held belief — among voters, if not politicians — that competitive elections serve the public interest by making elected officials more accountable to voters and by forcing them to govern from the political center.
Yet every 10 years, when state House and Senate boundaries are revised to account for population shifts, whichever party has a majority on the state Apportionment Board largely ignores the interests of voters. Instead, it seeks to redraw the lines to give maximum advantage to lawmakers of its party.
Last year, with Republicans in control of four of the five seats on the Apportionment Board, legislative redistricting divided 255 counties, cities, townships, and wards. The Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting said the new map reduces the number of competitive legislative districts and increases the number of safe Republican districts.
Democrats sued to block the plan, but the Supreme Court said they waited too long and that the 2012 elections should not be disrupted. Still, the justices didn’t reject the broader constitutional question.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who sits on the Apportionment Board, called the system that allows the majority party to redraw district lines to its advantage “partisan” and “dysfunctional.” Last month, he wrote to House Speaker William Batchelder (R., Medina) to warn that if the General Assembly doesn’t act to make the process appear less partisan, “outside groups will move forward with their own plans.”
The groups that the state’s chief elections official cites apparently include the League of Women Voters of Ohio and Common Cause Ohio. They are working on a constitutional amendment that would put redistricting in the hands of a nonpartisan citizens’ panel.
The current system shows what happens when foxes run the henhouse. Even those who recognize the abuse can’t bring themselves to relinquish control.
Ohioans could wait for years and several more elections for the constitutional modernization commission to embrace reform. Or the Supreme Court could force the issue by declaring the current system unconstitutional and suggesting a better way to represent the interests of all Ohioans in electing state lawmakers.
The guiding principle should be that voters pick their elected officials, not the other way around. Toledo Blade.