Senate passes legislative redistricting plan

Published 11:00 am Thursday, October 1, 2009

Every 10 years, following the release of U.S. Census figures by the federal government, the Governor, Secretary of State, State Auditor and a member from the majority and minority party in the General Assembly meet as the state Apportionment Board to redraw the boundaries of Ohio’s 99 House districts and 33 Senate districts.

The process, known as reapportionment, is required under the Ohio Constitution and can shape the political landscape in Columbus for years thereafter.

The way the current system works whichever political party holds a majority on the Apportionment Board ultimately has control over how the legislative district map is drawn. And, not surprisingly, the party in power has historically structured district boundaries to give their candidates the greatest advantage in elections.

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In addition, members of the House and Senate are responsible for passing legislation to establish congressional district lines for Ohio’s representatives in the U.S. House. The bill must be approved by a simple majority in each chamber and signed by the Governor. Again, the political party that controls the General Assembly and/or the Governor’s office has the leverage to shape district boundaries in their favor.

While they may not agree on how to get there, legislators on both sides of the aisle, as well as folks outside of state government, recognize that this hyper partisan approach to drawing legislative and congressional districts needs to be reformed to bring more balance, fairness and transparency to the process. In recent years, there have been several proposals put forward to accomplish this goal.

In 2005, a group called Reform Ohio Now worked to put several constitutional amendments on the ballot to reform Ohio’s elections system, including a proposal to change the state’s apportionment and redistricting rules. The plan, which was defeated by Ohio voters, would have created a commission to draw legislative and congressional boundaries based solely on a mathematical formula designed to maximize competitive districts across the state.

There were also resolutions introduced in the House and Senate during the 127th General Assembly that sought to restructure the state Apportionment Board.

This past week, the Ohio Senate took another key step in this effort. On Wednesday, Sept. 25, my colleagues and I approved Senate Joint Resolution 5, a proposed constitutional amendment sponsored by State Senator Jon Husted (R-Kettering) that would bring much-needed changes to Ohio’s apportionment and redistricting system.

SJR 5 would establish a seven-member commission, including the Governor, the Secretary of State, the Auditor of State, the Senate President, the Speaker of the House, the Minority Leader of the Senate and the Minority Leader of the House, which would be responsible for drawing legislative and congressional districts. Importantly, to minimize partisanship and bring more balance and fairness to the process, a five-vote supermajority would be required for any redistricting plan to pass and two of the votes would have to come from the minority party on the board.

In addition, the plan requires the redistricting commission to make its best effort to maximize the number of competitive districts in the state. A competitive district is defined as an area where the average partisan index is no more than five percent apart. Furthermore, to enhance bipartisan participation in the process, any resident of Ohio would be allowed to submit their own apportionment and redistricting plan for review by the commission.

Ohio’s apportionment and redistricting laws are complex, but they have a tremendous impact on the electoral process. A decision that important should not be made with the interests of the Democrat or Republican Party in mind, but the well being of Ohio voters.

SJR 5 represents a critical step forward in the effort to adopt a more reasoned approach to drawing legislative and congressional districts in Ohio.

As the resolution moves to the Ohio House for consideration, House Speaker Armond Budish has indicated that his caucus plans to unveil its own redistricting reform plan in the coming weeks. Whatever direction the Legislature decides to go with the issue, it is vital that Republicans and Democrats come together to bring meaningful reform to the system for the sake of Ohio voters and the future of our state.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District. He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.