By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
It looked as if Ohio’s redistricting reform might be doomed to failure – with opposing sides of the issue not budging.
But on Monday, a compromise was reached that satisfied both political parties plus the League of Women Voters and other citizen groups which had been pushing hard for reform.
Ohio Senate Majority Leader Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, called the unanimous Senate passage of Ohio Congressional Redistricting Reform “pretty remarkable.” The compromise, he said, should help restore public confidence that state legislators can tackle controversial issues in a bipartisan way.
“This historic, bipartisan vote is yet another example how state legislators in Columbus find ways to work together,” Gardner said. This afternoon, the Ohio House voted to support the bill.
The compromise was reached just in time, since the deadline to get an issue on the primary election ballot is this Wednesday at 4 p.m.
The proposed plan keeps the legislature in charge of drawing congressional district maps, but adds additional steps requiring minority party support to put a map in place for 10 years.
Ohio’s current process allows the majority party to dissect counties and cities to create districts that favor the party in power. Under the current map, drawn by Republicans in 2011, the GOP holds 12 of Ohio’s 16 seats while only winning 56 percent of the votes.
The plan establishes, for the first time, criteria for limiting the number of times counties, cities, villages and townships can be divided into multiple districts.
Monday night the Senate voted 31-0 for a Senate resolution that would place the proposed constitutional amendment on the May primary ballot. Gardner referred to the effort as a “major breakthrough.”
Joan Callecod, a member of the Bowling Green League of Women Voters, was excited to hear about the compromise in the Senate. “It looks promising,” she said. “It’s a positive thing, anytime there is compromise.”
The Bowling Green League of Women Voters has been advocating redistricting reform. Local members have been collecting petition signatures for a project called “Fair Districts = Fair Elections,” a non-partisan effort to place a redistricting amendment on the November 2018 ballot across the state.
The ultimate goal was to get congressional district lines drawn so that the elections aren’t decided before the votes are cast.
“The way it is right now, it just intensifies the divisiveness,” Callecod said last year as she and other league members collected signatures at the county library. “Under gerrymandering, instead of the voters choosing the legislators, the legislators chose their voters.”
Callecod said Tuesday that she suspects the push by citizen advocacy groups helped convince the legislature to reach a compromise.
“The legislature would not have responded the way they have without that,” she said.
The League of Women Voters had wanted the district lines drawn by a commission rather than legislators. But at least the Senate proposal offers a second step that would involve a commission if the legislature could not agree on district lines, she said.
Plus, the process will be conducted in the open, Callecod said.
“There will be open hearings. It won’t be done behind closed doors like in the past,” she said.
Senate Joint Resolution 5 requires minority party support for redrawing congressional district boundaries, including a set of new criteria that keeps communities together and will lead to more competitive elections in many areas of Ohio. The plan was endorsed by the Ohio League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the Fair Districts Coalition in addition to Republican and Democratic leaders.
“While there is strong debate in the state legislature on many issues facing Ohio, the public expects us to get things done when working together is in the best interest of our constituents,” Gardner said. “A fair, inclusive, bipartisan way to draw congressional district lines in certainly one of those issues.”
Voters will have the final say on the proposed constitutional amendment in the May 8 primary election.
The League of Women Voters and other citizen groups will continue collecting petition signatures, just in case the redistricting issue fails in the May 8 election. Those petitions will be an insurance policy, Callecod said.
“We want to be ready to go ahead to put it on in November,” she said.