Committee Studying Constitution Considers Redistricting

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Advocates for redistricting reform say the state's latest congressional district map shows the system is broken.(Photo: WOSU)
Advocates for redistricting reform say the state's latest congressional district map shows the system is broken.(Photo: WOSU)

The panel of lawmakers and private citizens that will be asked to recommend changes to Ohio’s Constitution is looking at the way the lines for legislative and congressional districts are drawn.

The topic of redistricting is a familiar one to Secretary of State Jon Husted, who’s been working on a proposal to change the way districts are drawn in Ohio since he was Speaker of the House in 2005.

And he told the Constitutional Modernization Commission that they have a historic opportunity here.

“I believe that redistricting reform, if done correctly, can be the most important reform to the Constitution to generations,” Husted said, “because it has the potential to fix what I consider to be a broken democracy.”

The last time the maps were drawn by Republicans after they swept the 2010 elections, they were blasted as some of the most gerrymandered and uncompetitive in the country. Husted said any redistricting process should be bipartisan and transparent to create districts that are compact and competitive, and said the lack of competitiveness could be clearly seen in the 2012 election.

Among Ohio’s 16 Congressional district races last year, the closest race was decided by 4 points, and the average margin of victory was 32 points – so the real contest was in the primary, and not in the general election.

And since primaries bring out more partisan voters, Husted said, that creates a challenge for the eventual winners who then have to go on to work in the Statehouse or on Capitol Hill.

We have vilified people on the political left and right so much so through this process that even if you wanted to work with someone from the other side your base sometimes wouldn’t even let you do that.

But a political science professor from Texas who’s studied legislative districts says that competition may be overrated.

Tom Brunell is with the University of Texas at Dallas, and says when a district is competitive between the two major parties, that automatically means that nearly half of voters will feel they aren’t being represented because their candidate lost.

Was the benefit of having this competitive election, does that offset all these other costs of having all these voters not well represented in the Assembly or in Congress? In my mind, they don’t.

Brunell was invited to speak to the Constitutional Modernization Commission about his views on competitiveness, which he says come down to making sure that voters are engaged, and that candidates who want to win and keep their elected positions are responsive to those voters.

“Your ideal district is you and then a whole bunch of other people, however big the district is, that think exactly like you. Then that’s an easy district to represent. And so the opposite of that is, well, let’s draw districts that are really diverse in terms of ideology,” Brunell says.

Brunell says he’s looked over decades’ worth of data showing that the margin of victory doesn’t seem to have much effect on the ideology of the candidate elected – in other words, a big win doesn’t mean a representative with more extreme views.

So I don’t think that having more competitive districts necessarily leads to more bipartisanship.

But Brunell’s ideas have been dismissed by many academics. Husted backs a bipartisan seven member board of elected officials from each party, and would require a five vote supermajority with at least one vote from a minority party member.

He said that would create four to five relatively safe Congressional seats, with six to 8 districts that could go either way, with lots of campaigning, political ads and robocalls.

“In the end, we’ll have more democracy. And more democracy is likely more expensive.”

Husted told the Commission members that if they are serious about making changes in the way districts are drawn, time is growing short.

e said he’d like to see a proposal on next November’s ballot, which he says would need to be ready before the deadline in August.

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