If Ohio Bans Gerrymandering Today, There Could be Hope for American Democracy

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: AP/Tony Dejak)

If Ohio Bans Gerrymandering Today, There Could be Hope for American Democracy

As voters go to the polls today in communities across the country, one state considers a bold fix for our broken political process.

American democracy is in sorry shape--battered on all sides by big money, restrictions on voting and vapid media that trivialize rather than enlighten. But Robert M. La Follette and the progressive reformers who a century ago established direct primaries, initiatives, and referendums; an elected US Senate; and voting rights for women always said that "the cure for what ails democracy is more democracy."

In Ohio today, voters have an opportunity to apply the cure.

Ohio Issue 1, a proposed constitutional amendment to ban partisan gerrymandering and establish a bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission to draw legislative district lines, is being pitched as a good-government reform. But that undersells its significance. This is a bold response to America's broken political processes.

The vote on Issue 1 is one of a number of vital tests that are in the ballot in states across the country today, as Americans go to the polls for a classic off-year election in which:

Governors, legislators, mayors will be chosen today. Voters will also decide whether to legalize marijuana.

  • Voters in Kentucky will settle a hotly contested race for governor and other statewide posts, in elections that could send important signals regarding the popular mood as the country heads toward the 2016 presidential contest. The same goes for legislative races in New Jersey and Virginia. Mississippi will also elect a governor Tuesday, while a critical runoff for governor of Louisiana will be held November 21.
  • Ohio voters will consider marijuana legalization, while Colorado voters will decide what to do with tax revenues from pot sales.
  • Cities across the country will choose mayors and local officials while settling key referendum questions. The local races feature a number of bold progressives, such as Toledo mayoral hopeful Mike Ferner (a former city councilman and past national board president of Veterans for Peace) and Seattle Council member Kshama Sawant (the Socialist Alternative incumbent and $15-an-hour wage champion who is campaigning for rent control, public transportation and municipal broadband). In very conservative Utah (which gave President Obama less than 25 percent of the vote in 2012, his lowest percentage nationally), Salt Lake City may elect the first openly gay member of the Utah Legislature, Jackie Biskupski, as the mayor of the state's largest municipality.
  • Local referendums and races will provide perspectives on national issues. In San Francisco, for instance, voters will decide whether to restrict the operations of Airbnb--in a groundbreaking attempt to regulate the new economy--and a proposal to help San Francisco-based "legacy businesses" to survive rent hikes and lease terminations. They will also determine whether to keep Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who has been the target of right-wing attacks for respecting the intent of San Francisco's "sanctuary city" ordinance. In Houston, voters will determine whether to enact the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure that protects residents and visitors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, and religion. The the city of Seattle and the state of Maine will vote on innovative campaign finance reform proposals.

What makes Ohio's Issue 1 test stand out is the fact that voters are being given a chance to address a key source of the political dysfunction that influences so many other issues.

Nothing does more to deny democracy than gerrymandering--the process by which legislators draw districts that are so heavily weighted toward one party that election results are preordained. When whole states are gerrymandered, the will of the voters can and is thwarted--so that even if most voters cast their ballots for Democrats, Republicans might retain control of legislative chambers.

Gerrymandering is such a powerful tool for protecting incumbent politicians and parties--it is literally referred to as "representatives picking their voters rather than voters picking their representatives"--that in heavily gerrymandered states, many seats go uncontested in November elections. To the extent that there is competitive, it is often in primaries, with a narrow minority of ideological absolutists threatening incumbent who works across party lines. Thus, gerrymandering has the duo effect of reducing partisan competition while increasing partisan gridlock.

This is why former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, a leading voting rights advocate, says, "Redistricting reform is one of the most important issues we can tackle."

That's not just true for Ohio. It is true for Wisconsin, for North Carolina, and states across the country. With that understood, the Buckeye state does provide a powerful illustration of why gerrymandering must be addressed.

In Ohio, a historically competitive state, Republicans swept to complete control of the governorship, lower-level statewide offices, and both houses of the state legislature in the Republican-wave election of 2010. They proceeded to draw district lines that were gerrymandered in their favor. Thus, even though Democratic President Barack Obama and Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown won big statewide victories in 2012, there was no parallel shift to the Democrats when it came to legislative races.

Why? Because, as former Ohio House minority leader Armond Budish, who served as the only Democrat on the current Ohio Apportionment Board noted during the 2011 redistricting process, the Republican majority on the board was able to force through a plan that effectively "quarantined" Democrats in roughly one-third of the Ohio's legislative districts. The clear majority of districts were drawn to favor Republicans, while only a handful of state House and state Senate seats were considered to be genuinely competitive.

The fury at the extreme gerrymandering of the state--and the ensuing one-party governance by Governor John Kasich and his allies--has mounted over the years. And now, the response comes in the form of the amendment proposal, which would:

  • Establish a seven-person bipartisan commission with at least two members of the minority party.
  • Ban partisan gerrymandering with an "explicit prohibition against drawing districts primarily to favor or disfavor a political party."
  • Require that districts reflect how voters actually voted: a plan could face a legal challenge if, for example, a party that wins about half of the votes for the General Assembly does not win about half of the seats.
  • Limit the use of maps lacking bipartisan support: If the commission approves a map without at least two votes from the minority party, the map will only be in effect for four years rather than 10. This creates an incentive for bipartisan cooperation because the majority party on the commission has no guarantee it will remain in the majority four years later.

This is not a perfect or final repair for the broken system in Ohio, let alone a perfect or final model for the rest of the country. For instance, the amendment addresses abuses only in the drawing of legislative district lines; it does not respond to the extreme gerrymandering of the state's congressional districts. With that said, Issue 1 does aim in the right direction. And it has drawn broad, bipartisan support. Why? Because, as the Toledo Bladewell notes, "Issue 1 is far preferable to the corrupt status quo. It enables Ohio voters to take back their state government from both parties."

If Ohio voter ban partisan gerrymandering--and if the change is respected by the courts and implemented by the new commission--this has the potential to be an electoral game changer.

"Redistricting reform is one of the most important issues we can tackle."

As the Cincinnati Enquirer editorial endorsement of the measure correctly observed, "This election offers a rare chance to change politics as usual--and without casting a single vote for a candidate. Ohioans simply need to vote for Issue 1."

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