The Push to Remove Party Influence from Ohio’s Voting Districts
By Tim Walker
Our government. One that is “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
This is a powerful idea, first articulated to us by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address in 1863, and it’s a concept that is unfortunately almost universally ignored by our duly elected officials every 10 years when the time to redraw the state’s congressional districts rolls around. “Of the party, by the party, and for the party,” might be a better way to describe the secret backdoor dealing, partisan thinking and rushed legislation that typically defines the process of redistricting in the state of Ohio.
But now Voters First, a coalition made up of a number of organizations, among them the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, is trying to do something about it. And all they – and we at the Dayton City Paper– are asking from you is your signature on a petition.
To put it simply (as my civics teacher once did back in the day), every ten years the United States counts its citizens, and this is called a census. The census is mandated by the federal government. The numbers are then used for a variety of things, boys and girls, but one of the most important of them is that after every census, the state legislatures throughout the United States are told how many representatives their state will send to the U.S. House of Representatives. Representation in the House is based on state population and there are a total of 435 representatives — unlike Senators, you will recall, which come two to a state — so some states may gain representatives in the House when they gain in population, while others, like Ohio after the 2010 census, lose. It then becomes the responsibility of each state legislature to redistrict the state into the appropriate number of congressional districts.
Stay with me here. Since a single party usually controls each state legislature, it is in the best interest of the party in power to redistrict their state so that their own party will have more seats in the House than the opposition party. This manipulation of electoral districts is called gerrymandering — therefore, gerrymandering is defined as the process of modifying congressional districts to benefit the party in power.
Obviously, what is good for the party in power may not necessarily be good for the people of Ohio. One look at the current congressional districts, tortured, elongated and bizarre as they are – those that were, as a matter of fact, drawn in the wake of the last census – makes it obvious that at no time during the process of the most recent redistricting were the needs of their constituents even considered by our politicians, let alone placed on the front burner.
How did this happen? How have we reached a point in which the needs of the voters are so blatantly ignored so that political parties can protect their own best interests? Why are we, the voters who are in charge of these people, allowing this to go on?
“If children did this on a playground, they’d call it cheating,” said Susan Hesselgesser, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of the Greater Dayton Area. “Because when you change the rules to win, everybody loses. I think that’s it, plain and simple. It’s cheating. I think it needs to be changed, and now is the time to do it. Other states have done it, and Ohio can do it, too. ”
Voters First is now trying to do just that, and they need nearly 400,000 signatures in which to do it. With the support of organizations such as the League of Women Voters, We Are Ohio, and Common Cause, Voters First is proposing a constitutional amendment that would completely reform Ohio’s redistricting process. To get this issue on the ballot for the elections this fall, the organization needs to collect nearly 400,000 signatures by July 3.
The proposed constitutional amendment would create an Ohio Citizen’s Independent Redistricting Commission. Politicians, lobbyists and other political insiders would not be permitted to serve on the commission or to participate in the selection process of the commissioners, in marked contrast to the current system, which is made up of nothing but politicians and political insiders.
Voters First feels that this effort will result in more accountability and more transparency in the redistricting process, and that it will restore balance to legislative and congressional districts that will fairly reflect the preferences of Ohio voters. Instead of the current procedures, in which politicians draw district boundaries that unfairly benefit their own parties and incumbents, a 12-member citizens commission will create the districts. Any member of the public will be able to submit a plan for consideration. The Citizens Commission will include equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats and independents, and the approval of at least seven of the 12 members of the commission will be required for the adoption of any plan – therefore ensuring that the needs of all Ohioans are being served, not just those of the party in power. All meetings, records, communications and draft plans of the commission will be open to the public, unlike the current system. Districts will also be created which are politically balanced, geographically compact and which minimize the division of counties, townships, municipalities and wards between different districts.
A survey of likely voters conducted in January of 2012 shows majority support for a change to the redistricting process. Lake Research Partners concluded, “public support for the proposal is not only broad – traversing typical divides of party, region, gender and age – it is also intense. Additionally, support increases as voters learn more about the proposal.”
Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way. Not surprisingly, representatives of the party currently in power feel that there are problems with Voters First and the idea of a constitutional amendment. Mike Dittoe, spokesman for Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder, said the Voters First organization is “mischaracterized as a nonpartisan effort.”
“The Voters First initiative,” Dittoe continued, “Is an extremely ill-drafted concept that involves the judiciary in an unprecedentedly political fashion, allows unelected individuals who are not accountable to the electorate to draw the lines, and perhaps most disturbing, the language is so restrictive that it appears more than 7 million Ohioans would be excluded to serve on the commission. This is inherently undemocratic.”
But Ellis Jacobs of the Miami Valley Voter Protection Coalition, recently quoted in the Dayton Daily News, said that statistic is misleading, because those 7 million are comprised of children who are not yet of voting age and people who have failed to vote in two of the last three general elections.
Voters First spokesman Ian Nickey added that the current system eliminates all 11 million Ohioans, except for the politicians.
Politics, and especially politics as it relates to elections, is not a popular subject these days, unfortunately. The electorate is largely disenfranchised, either due to their own apathy or through the machinations of their government. Too many people – especially young people – who have the power to vote have given up their place in the democratic process, have voluntarily given up their own voice (and never forget that this is a right for which people have fought and died to protect) because they simply do not care.
In the 2008 presidential election, only 63.6 percent of U.S. citizens voted. This doesn’t sound bad, until you consider that this was also one of the highest voter turnouts in several generations.
As Hesselgesser recently put it, “The best thing you can do is get out and vote this fall. And vote for a candidate – not a party.”
If you are not registered to vote, do so today. Make your voice heard. If you are registered to vote, then exercise your right to vote. Help others get to the polls – the sick, the elderly and the ones who our government is trying to keep silent. Keep our country strong and free. Help make this land a good example for the rest of the world, and the beacon of freedom that it was always meant to be.
(For more information and to sign the Voters First petition, contact the League of Women Voters at 937-372-4148. You must be registered in order to vote in the state of Ohio, and if you’ve moved or changed your name, make sure you update your registration. Ohioans who are not registered to vote can do so in a number of ways: at their county Board of Elections office, at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, at the public library, or at any public high school or vocational school. You can also register by mail. Call the Montgomery County Board of Elections at 937-225-5656 for more information.)
Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com