The Athens NEWS urges our readers to support state Issue 1 on the May 8 primary ballot. While not perfect (what law is?), this amendment to the Ohio constitution would take a big step toward eliminating the curse of gerrymandering that disenfranchises so many voters every year in our state’s congressional elections.

Gerrymandering, briefly explained, gives the majority party in state government the power to draw congressional and legislative districts in order to maximize that party’s advantages. The result, as we’ve seen in Ohio in recent years, has been a more or less purple state (leaning Republican but not overwhelmingly so) dominated by a lopsidedly Republican congressional delegation (11-R, 4-D).

Most congressional races in Ohio have been foregone conclusions, with little drama or competition. Voters can be forgiven for thinking, “why bother?”

A bipartisan legislative compromise came about in early February that produced Joint Resolution 5, which led to state Issue 1. The GOP majority in the General Assembly agreed to dilute their own power in setting congressional districts, in order to prevent a stronger anti-gerrymandering citizen initiative that was heading toward the ballot in November.

The citizen measure was being pushed energetically by Fair Districts Ohio, whose committee includes members from the Ohio Environmental Council, Common Cause Ohio and the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

Fair Districts Ohio has endorsed Issue 1, stating on its website, “The proposed amendment that passed the Ohio Senate creates a bipartisan process that strongly encourages both major parties to cooperate and agree on a congressional map that better represents the views of Ohioans. Issue 1 includes greater transparency and strong rules that focus on keeping communities together and prohibitions on gerrymandering if the two political parties come to an impasse.”

It’s possible and even likely that Republican lawmakers realized that if they didn’t pass a congressional redistricting measure that preserved some of the majority party’s influence on drawing district lines, they’d be cut out entirely.

Here’s how Issue 1 would work, going into effect after the 2020 Census:

The process would involve three separate stages, including:

• Stage 1. Passage of a congressional map for Ohio would require a three-fifths approval from both the Ohio House and Senate, and include no less than 50 percent support from the minority party. Currently, the minority Democrats have virtually no say in the process.

• If that failed to produce a map, Stage 2 would go into effect, with Ohio’s existing seven-member bipartisan redistricting commission (formed when voters approved state legislative redistricting in 2015) drawing districts. At least two minority party members on that committee would have to agree to the map.

• Finally, if Stage 2 failed to produce a map, Stage 3 would take the process back to the Legislature, who either could 1) pass a 10-year map with at least one-third support from the minority party, or 2) pass a four-year map with a simple majority (potentially without one vote from the minority party). If that happened, stricter rules would kick in, prohibiting any plan that “unduly favors or disfavors” a political party or that unduly splits government units (cities, counties, etc.). Compact districts would be encouraged.

The governor would need to approve the plan, and Ohio voters could challenge a plan produced in this manner through referendum. 

Issue 1, if approved by Ohio voters in the May 5 Primary election, would prevent the sort of gerrymandered abomination with which Athens County voters are all too familiar, the 15th Congressional District.

That district, with most of Athens County on its eastern edge, includes several south-central Ohio counties, but then rises up into densely populated Franklin County forming a “C” that encircles Columbus. On the district’s western edge is Clinton County, located a short drive from the Cincinnati metropolitan area. The 15th District’s Republican incumbent, Rep. Steve Stivers, lives in Upper Arlington, almost within view of the Ohio State University campus. 

The only reason that anyone would draw such a convoluted district (and Ohio is full of them, as well as numerous counties and cities that are split asunder) would be to produce as many as possible “safe” districts for the party in control.

What this means for Ohio is a congressional delegation that reflects partisan muscle rather than good government. No reasonable definition of democracy would countenance that sort of power play.

This congressional redistricting plan for the most part will correct that political obscenity. Vote yes on State Issue 1.

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