New legislative district lines in Ohio can be drawn fairly

Before Republican legislative leaders in Columbus dismiss offhand a map that won first place in the Ohio Redistricting Competition sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Ohio Education Fund, the Midwest Democracy Network and Ohio Citizen Action, we would point out that the individual who came up with the new boundaries for the Senate and House districts is a Republican state representative, albeit from Illinois.

Mike Fornter, who represents the 95th District, is former mayor of West Chicago and an associate professor of physics at Northern Illinois University in West Chicago. He isn’t some flaming liberal out to reverse the political fortunes of the GOP in Ohio by producing a map that gives Democrats any kind of an advantage.

While it is true that the solid GOP majority in the Ohio General Assembly could make the old political saying, “To the victor belongs the spoils,” the guiding principle in the redistricting exercise, we would remind Senate President Tom Niehaus and House Speaker Bill Batchelder that there are strict federal laws that guard against disenfranchising any segment of the population and are designed to ensure there isn’t a dilution of voting strength, especially with regard to black voters.

The Republicans would invite lawsuits if they were to create legislative districts that disproportionately favor their party. Having a majority does not mean trampling on the rights of the Democrats.

A five-member state Apportionment Board — four Republicans and one Democrat — has been holding hearings throughout the state to solicit public opinion. Board members were in Youngstown a couple of weeks ago and conducted a hearing on the campus of Youngstown State University. The session was poorly attended, an indication, perhaps, that this heavily Democratic area has concluded the Republicans will do what they please. Ten years ago, after the 2000 U.S. population census, the GOP drew a legislative map that clearly favored the party.

But today, with independent, grass-roots organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, actively involved, Niehaus and Batchelder would do well to resist the temptation to ride roughshod over the opposition.

Apolitical contest

The Ohio Redistricting Competition, which was launched July 19 nationwide, is deserving of attention by the state legislators because it was apolitical. The competition required participants to design districts that comply with all federal and state legal requirements. The maps were scored on objective nonpartisan criteria which used mathematical formulas to measure the degree to which districts respected county boundaries, were compact, balanced and did not favor either political party.

“Private citizens designed the districts that are more politically balanced than our current districts and that are still more compact and split fewer counties than our current districts,” said Jim Slagle, manager of the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting. “Each of the winning maps scored higher than the maps of our current districts.”

This year’s redistricting is especially important to the Mahoning Valley because this region was among the ones that lost the most population, according to the 2010 census. As a result, there will be a rearranging of Senate and House districts. The shrinking of the state legislative delegation would not be good for Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.

While Democratic legislators in Columbus have been ignored since the Republicans took over state government in January, they should not sit quietly while the Apportionment Board does it work. The panel is scheduled to vote on a new legislative district map by Oct. 1.

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