A voter at the ballot maker machine during the Ohio primary election, May 3, 2022, at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center, Dublin, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for the Ohio Capital Journal.)
One might ask: Didn’t we already reform the process? Isn’t that how the Ohio Redistricting Commission came to be?
“This process could have worked,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio. “It should have worked, and we have constitutional officers who have refused to actually follow what Ohio voters have put in the (state) constitution.”
After controversy mired the redistricting process, starting in 2010, citizen groups wanted to see a new method of redrawing voting district maps in Ohio. The League of Women Voters of Ohio and Common Cause Ohio were among groups who filed a petition in 2012 to place redistricting reform on voters’ ballots.
That proposal asked for an independent commission that “would ensure districts were compact, competitive and reflective of the political values of voters,” according to the LWV Ohio.
When that proposal only received 37% of the vote, it was the General Assembly’s turn to attempt reform, in the form of the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission.
But gridlock happened within that commission, bringing talk of a negotiation in 2014 between then state Reps. Vernon Sykes and Matt Huffman. Those negotiations would become Issue 1, the proposal that would create the Ohio Redistricting Commission and prohibitions on partisan gerrymandering, but also allow a two-pronged method of passing maps: a 10-year plan approved only through bipartisan support, or a 4-year plan that could be passed by a simple majority.
The proposal also set the Ohio Supreme Court as the venue for final approval of legislative redistricting plans, but as the state would later realize, did not create an enforcement model that allowed the state’s highest court to move forward if no agreement or constitutional map was made.
In 2015, Issue 1 passed with 71.5% of the vote, reforming the process for legislative redistricting.
In 2018, Issue 1 would pass with a similar majority regarding congressional redistricting methods.
Now, a year has gone by and the 2022 election will run under maps the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled as unconstitutional. The court has threatened to bring commission members in for contempt hearings, but the hearings never happened, and the court is still waiting on the next set of congressional and legislative maps to be submitted to it.
“You’re talking about these folks, they’re drunk on power,” Turcer said. “And when people are drunk, what do you do? You take away their car keys.”
With the lack of an enforcement mechanism allowing the Supreme Court to take over the process, and legislative leaders arguing it doesn’t have the power to dictate redistricting rules because they’re a legislative process, talk of more reforms through ballot initiatives has cropped up again.
“Ultimately, I don’t think the constitutional amendments failed. I think we had politicians who were hell-bent on rigging districts in their own favor,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
But pushing for new reforms isn’t a short-term process, especially with a general election imminent.
Turcer and Miller said discussions are active on how to bring about new ballot measures, which starts by identifying priorities about what those changes should be.
“Compactness is valued, the people in the different political subdivisions are valued, and so are prohibitions on gerrymandering,” Turcer said.
Miller said the league is conducting public opinion and policy research, including looking at how other states have conducted redistricting before they push forward with petitions or ballot language.
“What’s most important right now is to think about a truly balanced and independent commission,” Miller said. “We need a balanced, independent commission that cares more about voters than anything else.”
Bringing together a constitutional amendment that is specific enough to create accountability but broad enough to last decades is something that takes significant time and effort, just as putting together a truly independent commission will.
“You want to have enough people that the decision-making body is effective and representative of the people of Ohio,” Turcer said.
In some states, like Michigan, commission selection looked similar to jury duty, and in others, like California, an elaborate application process and review took place. Even after commission members are in place, the work has just begun.
“It’s a matter of raising a ton of money, it’s a matter of getting everybody on the same page,” Turcer said.
The deadline to collect signatures for a ballot initiative is 125 days before an election, which puts “prime signature gathering time” in the summer, according to Turcer.
Putting things like redistricting reform in the hands of the voters, rather than in the hands of the legislature, is an important way of empowering voters to enact change themselves, advocates say.
“Direct democracy, where voters collect signatures and try to get constitutional amendments passed is about as old as the state of Ohio,” Miller said.
Citizen-led initiatives aren’t always a home run, according to statistics. Of the 44 constitutional amendment proposals brought about by citizen petition since 1950, 34 proposals failed at the ballot.
That includes three different redistricting measures, in 2012, 2005 and 1981, all of which were rejected, leading to the legislative-supported movement in 2015.
“It is helpful to have both parties endorse an initiative to get it passed at the ballot box,” Miller said.
A Republican supermajority may be a hard thing to overcome, but the last measure had bipartisan support, which Huffman frequently mentioned in commission meetings when he was a member.
What may also push a future initiative over the finish line is the year-long education Ohio voters have received as the effort stretched on.
Miller said it’s “critical” that voters express their opinion on the ballot, and Turcer sees a more education Ohio electorate as the way forward.
“What is super clear to me is that the Ohio Constitution gives us the opportunity to tackle change if the state legislature is not willing to do so,” Turcer said.
Follow OCJ Reporter Susan Tebben on Twitter.
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