By Marc Kovac
Ohio voters will consider two issues in November that have been long discussed in the state but never approved at the ballot box.
Issue 1 asks whether the state should host a constitutional convention to determine whether the guiding governmental document should be amended.
Issue 2 is a redistricting-reform package that backers say will take politicians out of the process of drawing congressional and legislative district lines with a commission that would begin meeting next year to revamp maps approved last year.
The constitutional convention appears on the ballot every 20 years and has never been approved by voters, though lawmakers passed legislation earlier this year offering an alternative process. Other attempts to reform the state’s redistricting processes have either failed to reach the ballot or have been voted down.
Of the two, Issue 2 has garnered more public attention, with active campaigns for and against it and a flurry of complaints about false statements before the state election commission.
Proponents, including many Democrats, the Ohio League of Women Voters and union groups, say the proposed setup would be an improvement over the lopsided maps drafted by mostly Republicans last year that improved the prospects of continued GOP control of districts.
“The way our district lines are drawn [is] intended to maximize the advantage that incumbents and the party in power holds while minimizing the extent to which every citizen’s vote really matters,” said Dan Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University and a member of the Voters First committee behind the ballot issue.
He added, “Our lines have been drawn in a way that basically ensures that politicians won’t be held accountable to the people.”
But opponents, including many Republicans, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Ohio Right to Life and prominent judge and lawyer groups, say the issue is flawed, will cost millions of dollars to implement and won’t ensure politics are removed from the process.
“Issue 2 sounds good on the surface, but this would be a permanent change in Ohio’s Constitution,” said Terry Casey, a Republican consultant who is among opponents of the issue, speaking on behalf of the opposition group Protect Your Vote Ohio.
“And clearly, as you read the details of the seven pages, you realize there’s a lot of problems, and the difficulty, if by chance this gets approved, this is something we’ll be stuck with in the state Constitution forever and ever.”
Under the current system outlined in the Constitution, reapportionment of state legislative lines is completed every 10 years, after new census statistics pinpoint population changes. A five-member board oversees the process, headed by the governor and including the secretary of state, state auditor and two members from the state Legislature (one from each party).
That process is separate from congressional redistricting, which is handled by state lawmakers, who pass legislation adopting new boundaries after considering population shifts.
Both processes were completed last year, under the control of Republicans. The resulting maps, while receiving some Democratic support, were criticized by Democrats, who said they were locked out of the process and the new districts leaned heavily in favor of the GOP.
That’s when Voters First began circulating petitions and gathering signatures to force the issue onto the November ballot.
Issue 2 proposes the creation of a 12-member citizens commission that would include four Republicans, four Democrats and four people with no partisan affiliation, chosen by lot by a panel of appeals court judges.
Paid lobbyists, politicians and large campaign contributors would be among those prohibited from serving. Districts would be drawn following specified criteria that take into account compactness and competition.
The Legislature would be required to provide funding for the commission’s work, though Tokaji said the amendment specifies that only “necessary expenses” would have to be covered. And the new commission would begin its work immediately, redrawing maps that were completed last year.
But opponents say the amendment, while laudable in its goals, has too many problems.
“Ohio needs to reform its redistricting process, but this is not reform,” Husted, the state’s chief elections official who pushed his own reform package as a lawmaker, said earlier this year. “This has the potential to be just as bad or worse than the current system.”
Among other concerns, opponents mention the potential costs. An analysis completed by the state’s Office of Budget and Management estimates that it will cost between $9 million and $12.9 million within the first two years of adoption, with another $2 million-plus possible through 2020.
Opponents also say appointed members will not be accountable to the public and criteria for drawing districts aren’t very clearly defined.
The constitution requires the convention question to be placed on the ballot every 20 years. If approved, lawmakers would be required to work out the details of the gathering, with any recommended changes that result placed before voters for final approval.
But a new Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission, created by lawmakers earlier this year, is already doing just that, with 12 lawmakers and 20 public members required to offer an initial report early next year and subsequent reports “at least every two years” afterward through mid-2021.