Editorial: Despite Census delays, Ohio can take steps now to ensure public input in redistricting process

That Ohioans want fairly drawn General Assembly and U.S. House seats is incontestable.

In November 2015, 71% of those voting ratified a state constitutional amendment (H.J.R. 12) to reform how Ohio draws (“reapportions”) its General Assembly districts. And in May 2018, an even greater proportion of those Ohioans voting – 75% – ratified a state constitutional amendment (S.J.R. 5) to reform how Ohio draws its congressional districts, a task known as “redistricting.”

Voters were motivated not just by Ohio’s crazy quilt of gerrymandered districts but also by a perception that political insiders, aided by new computer programs that allowed block-by-block map redrawing, had hijacked what should be a fair, transparent and honest public process.

The first test for these reforms is coming, using 2020 Census data to redraw Ohio’s legislative and General Assembly maps.

Trouble is, the 2020 Census results will arrive late, significantly late — possibly not until September 30. That will challenge Ohio to revise its redistricting deadlines and to take other measures to adjust. (Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s attempt to force the U.S. Census Bureau to give Ohio bad data now was laughed out of federal court, but Yost has appealed.)

What Ohio should not do is to use these delays to thwart the voters’ clear intent, as expressed in the 2015 and 2018 referendums, to ensure transparency, fairness and full public input in the redistricting process.

… What Ohio cannot do is go back to the old, narrowly partisan mode of redistricting. Both political parties have exploited redistricting in the past, but as the process has gotten ever easier to manipulate, the stakes have risen.

A decade ago, Ohio’s current 16 congressional districts were ordered from the General Assembly like takeout by then U.S. House Speaker John A. Boehner of suburban Cincinnati. And the map they drew in a Columbus hotel “bunker” virtually guaranteed that Ohio’s 16 districts would elect 12 Republicans and four Democrats to the U.S. House.

Likewise, Ohio’s 33 state Senate and 99 Ohio House districts, drawn by a GOP-run Apportionment Board, have helped keep the GOP in control of the state Senate for 36 consecutive years.

But partisan taunts about who started what in Ohio and when are fundamentally irrelevant: Ohio’s voters have said, as clearly and loudly as they’ve said anything, that enough is enough.

To redraw Ohio House and Senate districts, voters in 2015 replaced the Apportionment Board with a seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission. The 2015 reform sets fairness and geographic standards for districts.

And the measure requires the approval of new General Assembly districts by at least four panel members, with at least two from each party. If the panel deadlocks along party lines, it can still approve new districts, but for four years, not ten.

To redraw congressional districts, voters in 2018 decided that the General Assembly itself, as now, could create them by passing a bill — but with a significant new requirement: That congressional remap must be approved by at least three-fifths of the members of each house, “including the affirmative vote of at least one-third of the members of each of the two largest political parties represented in that house.” Failing that, the Redistricting Commission would redraw congressional districts.

The reforms also impose additional requirements to add fairness and equity and to try to prevent partisan slicing and dicing of communities and constituencies.

As welcome as these changes are, there remains a danger they could prove two-dimensional – political insiders taking care of each other. There’s one strong remedy: full, active attention and (to borrow a Great Society phrase) maximum feasible participation in district-drawing by Ohio voters of both parties, and of no party.

That’s where the battery of current actions that the nonpartisan, interracial Fair Districts Ohio coalition is pushing comes in — to safeguard and advance the twin goals of maximal public input and transparency despite Census delays. …

— Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 16