Editorial: AWOL leaders of redistricting show disrespect

A recent editorial by the Youngstown Vindicator:

As Ohio sprints to meet fast-approaching deadlines for redrawing its state and federal legislative districts, the stench of Elbridge Gerry must not waft its way into the process.

Gerry reigns as the father of gerrymandering. As governor of Massachusetts, he signed a bill in 1812 that created a wacky salamander-shaped voting district in Boston to preserve a stronghold for his Democratic-Republican Party. Ergo, the term “gerrymander” was born.

Flash forward 209 years to today’s exercise in Ohio of reshaping the state’s General Assembly and U.S. congressional districts for maximum fairness and minimum gerrymandering for the next 10 years. Because the Buckeye State has had an ignoble track record of drawing salamander-like boundaries to protect the dominant political party in power, the reforms Ohioans voted in over the past six years to ensure greater fairness in the process must be rigidly followed and unflinchingly respected.

Sadly, judging by a forum in Youngstown last week to gather public input on the shape of things to come, some redistricting decision makers have blatantly thumbed their noses at those noble goals.

The proof is in their paltry turnout. Only two official members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission — state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, and Ohio Auditor Keith Faber — bothered to show up at Youngstown State University’s Kilcawley Center for the mid-afternoon forum last Monday. Those members absent without official leave were Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Speaker of the House Robert R. Cupp, Senate President Matt Huffman, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes.

Such chronic absenteeism sends a distressing message from these public officeholders about their commitment to their critically important task: We don’t care much about what constituents in the Youngstown-Warren area think about redistricting.

An incredulous state Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, a forum attendee, summarized it best: “This is the most important thing in a decade, and they can’t show up in the Mahoning Valley.”

Perhaps the panel members already have created new legislative boundaries, and the absentees saw no need in hearing legitimate and constructive public input. After all, the commission has only two more days to meet a self-imposed deadline to reveal the first draft of new maps.

If that scenario is indeed true, we’d fervently hope the panelists at least would consider the input they received second-hand from residents at the well-attended forums throughout the state in tweaking their work.

For example, some at the Youngstown hearing voiced similar concerns as we did last Sunday in this space on the need to keep the Mahoning Valley united as one viable and cohesive congressional district. As we noted then, our region has too much to lose if our state and federal legislative districts get sliced and diced into multiple fragmented districts.

And though the new process approved by voters three years ago includes several safeguards — such as recommending keeping entire counties within one or two congressional districts — it also has loopholes that allow for gerrymandering to creep into the process. For example, if a 10-year map does not gain majority bipartisan approval by November, the Republican majority could then singlehandedly implement four-year maps.

Such defeatist scenarios, however, need not come to pass. A first step toward ensuring they do not is for the Ohio Redistricting Commission to take its work and the input of its constituents seriously as it enters the home stretch.

By Wednesday, the panel will unveil its initial plans for divvying up the new legislative districts. Then it plans to take those maps on the road for more comment and criticism.

On that road show, no-shows must be unacceptable. Each and every member of the commission ought to attend each and every forum in person to listen intently to the concerns from those who will be most impacted by the panel’s mapmaking. Then members should apply that input when tweaking the final drafts of the maps, due no later than Sept. 15.

We’d also recommend scheduling some of the forums in the evening to benefit those who cannot make daytime events due to work obligations. After all, the greater the participation, the greater the fairness.

In addition to fairness, respect for the process must remain paramount in mind among all commission members. They can best prove that commitment by showing up in person at all future hearings.

— Youngstown Vindicator, Aug. 29