Editorial: Ohio’s cynically partisan zero-sum games over redistricting show reforms are needed

A recent editorial by the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

In January, as an Ohio Supreme Court majority rejected the first of a slew of what it found to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered General Assembly and congressional maps, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor made a prescient observation: Allowing partisans to continue to game Ohio’s redistricting process — as voters essentially did via 2015 and 2018 amendments to the Ohio Constitution that left redistricting decisions in the hands of elected Republicans and Democrats — likely doomed the reform efforts.

And O’Connor, a Republican who, because of judicial age limits in Ohio, is stepping down at the end of her current term, went further. In an opinion seconded by Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner, she offered a prescription for change, via another vote of the people, noting that, “In other states, voters have elected ballot measures that strip redistricting authority from state legislatures and partisan officeholders and place it instead with nonpartisan redistricting commissions.”

In other words, amend the Ohio Constitution again, she suggested, to wring partisanship from the process “with a truly independent, nonpartisan commission that more effectively distances the redistricting process from partisan politics.”

It’s an idea Ohio voters and those who believe in political fairness should consider — and one O’Connor might be willing to champion once she’s out of office.

The sad truth is that, in what should have been the first test of Ohio redistricting reforms this year, Ohioans lost, and partisanship won — at least as far the 2022 pitched battle over General Assembly and congressional redistricting is concerned.

The process was gamed by Republicans every step of the way, but does anybody think Democrats wouldn’t have done the same if they were in the driver’s seat?

This process has done damage not just to the voters’ intent, but also to the primacy of the state’s judiciary. Over the course of the last five months, elected Republicans, including Gov. Mike DeWine, have repeatedly defied or just ignored redistricting orders from a 4-3 Ohio Supreme Court majority led by O’Connor.

Almost inevitably, that will erode the court’s authority going forward. And it’s hurt justice, as maps already found to be unconstitutional nonetheless will guide this year’s congressional and state legislative elections.

The partisan gridlock also allowed an outside panel of three federal judges to step into the fray, ordering Ohio — on a 2-1 vote — to nominate General Assembly candidates at a special, Aug. 2 primary election, using GOP-tilted districts, after months of courthouse jousting.

Did politics influence the federal panel? It’s not possible to say for sure, although the two judges in the majority were appointed by former President Donald Trump while the dissenting justice had been named by Democrat Bill Clinton

In any case, pending any procedural reforms, in two years the litigation circus will return to Columbus courtrooms, because Aug 2′s districts, along with congressional elections in Ohio this year, are only for this year’s elections.

Many Ohioans have justifiably derided Republicans’ manipulation of the Ohio Redistricting Commission. But politicians don’t play to lose. So, with the immediate future set via the federal order, the question should be, not so much who’s to blame, but what needs done so 2024 (and 2031) won’t be a rerun.

In effect, the voters’ amendments to General Assembly redistricting were blind to built-in political conflicts of interest.

Why, for example, should legislators be in a position to draw their own colleagues’ districts? Moreover, in what’s supposed to be a check-and-balance government, why should executive officers be in a position to tilt the political complexion of a (theoretically watchdog) legislative branch?

Should Ohioans consider, instead, the “truly independent, nonpartisan commission” O’Connor suggested in her Jan. 12 concurrence? At a minimum, that’s an idea worth exploring.

Third question: Should Ohio’s Supreme Court have found Republican redistricting commissioners in contempt of court for failing to meet Supreme Court deadlines? Trouble there is that a constitutional clash might have made martyrs of anyone the court punished.

What’s clear, given this year’s experience, is that Ohioans didn’t get what they ordered in their 2015 and 2018 redistricting reforms. What’s also clear is that what those two amendments promised – a nonpartisan process – wasn’t delivered either, because, as written, and in the hands of crafty litigators, it couldn’t be.

That’s why, unless Ohioans want a rerun of 2022 in 2024, or 2031, some things may have to change.

— Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 12