Other states have moved away from extreme gerrymandering. Can’t Ohio?

Gov. Mike DeWine chose three words to describe the embarrassing episode staged by his fellow Republicans running the Statehouse — absurd, ridiculous and unacceptable. All three are apt in view of legislative leaders at an impasse in addressing something they have fixed in the past.

Ohio law requires certification of the November ballot 90 days before an election. As it is, Democrats won’t nominate Joe Biden in time. Leave him off the ballot? That would be as the governor described.

As recently as 2012 and 2020, lawmakers approved an exception, needed by candidates of both parties. This time, in their dysfunctional way, Republican lawmakers couldn’t get the job done.

So, the governor called a special session of the legislature last week.

The mess brings to mind another adjective — persuasive.

Persuasive? Yes, as in Republican lawmakers clinching the argument for an independent commission composed of citizens to draw legislative and congressional districts. The hope is that advocates will gain the petition signatures necessary to place such a proposed state constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

This hyperpartisan performance regarding Biden and the ballot fits into a pattern. Recall Statehouse Republicans expressing contempt for voters as they ignored the overwhelming support Ohioans showed for redistricting changes in 2015 and 2018 designed to end extreme gerrymandering.   

Republicans did the same to the Ohio Supreme Court, defying a bipartisan majority seeking to hold them accountable. When citizens organized to protect reproductive rights, Republicans first pursued their own ballot measure to require approval by a supermajority. To which, voters resoundingly responded “no.”

Matt Huffman, the Ohio Senate president, beamed the arrogance at work during a recent Ohio Chamber of Commerce forum. He defended his district maps though they run counter to the requirement that redistricting reflect the statewide election preferences of voters.

Go back a decade or so, and Ohio breaks roughly 54% for Republicans and 46% for Democrats. Yet, under the Huffman maps, Republicans control two-thirds of the state’s 15 U.S. House seats, 79% of the Ohio Senate and 68% of Ohio House seats. At one turn, the Supreme Court majority cited an analysis that found Democrats would need something like 54% of the vote to gain a mere one-seat majority.

Huffman also had the gall to champion “the bipartisan way” in which the Ohio Redistricting Commission approved the maps. He wondered aloud whether any other state had come together in a similar fashion. He added: “It simply doesn’t happen.”

It didn’t actually happen here, either. As Huffman knows well, the Democratic members capitulated. They were outnumbered. They shifted their focus to achieving an independent commission through a statewide ballot measure. Huffman and company made plain: Political pros cannot be trusted to deliver the fair districts mandated by voters.

A recent analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice confirms the mistreatment of voters. The study found that 77 of 99 Ohio House districts are either uncontested or one party has a disproportionate advantage (a partisan index of 55% or more).

That translates to roughly 9 million Ohioans without a real choice.

Part of this reality goes to our deeply polarized, or calcified, politics, deep red and blue counties. That doesn’t mean districts, whether for the state legislature or the U.S. House, must tilt so heavily in favor of one party.

Analysts and even ordinary citizens have revealed as much by crafting their own proposed district maps. One result, cited by the Ohio Supreme Court, found Republicans with 58% percent of the Ohio House and 60% of the Ohio Senate — a substantial improvement over the work of the politicians.

This is the germ of the good idea advanced by Citizens Not Politicians, the group organizing the campaign for an independent commission driven by citizens.

The proposed constitutional amendment would create a 15-member commission, with an equal number of Republicans, Democrats and independents — no active pols, family members or associates allowed.

A bipartisan panel of retired Ohio judges would oversee formation of the commission, inviting applications, creating a pool of qualified applicants and then narrowing the number. The first six members would be selected at random. Those six would choose the next nine members.

The commission would conduct a series of public hearings across the state, first to gather input and then to finalize the map. The process would be transparent. Nine members would be needed to approve a map, with at least two Democrats, two Republicans and two independents.

In another disingenuous moment, Huffman fretted about the complexity, and again helped make the case. As it is, the proposal echoes the approach taken by other states, where if they have not done the impossible — removing politics entirely — they have achieved something better. They have moved away from extreme gerrymandering toward more competitive and more representative districts.

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