Unbalanced districts

President Obama won Ohio by 2 percentage points, while U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown won re-election by slightly more than 5. But you would never guess Ohio is a competitive state for Democrats when glancing down the ticket.

Republicans will remain firmly in charge of the state legislature and congressional delegation, likely to hold a 59 to 40 advantage over Democrats in the Ohio House and a 23 to 10 advantage in the Senate. Of the state’s 16 congressional districts, 12 will be represented by Republicans.

What happened? After each census, the party in power gets to redraw political boundaries. Because they control the legislature and statewide executive offices, Republicans seized every advantage.

To put a stop to such partisan manipulation, the League of Women Voters and other groups proposed a constitutional amendment — Issue 2 on Tuesday’s ballot — that would put redistricting in the hands of a citizens commisson. The amendment was soundly defeated, Republicans rightly pouncing on its complicated provisions and the involvement of the state’s judical branch.

Yet Republicans also agree that the present system is broken, producing lopsided results that don’t reflect the balance of power in a battleground state. More, both sides correctly argue that the lack of competitive districts creates a political climate unlikely to produce compromise.

The current system of safe seats rewards those who do well in primaries by appealing to the base of their own party. When such representatives go to Washington and Columbus, they find it difficult to move toward the center to find compromise.

During the fall campaign, Republicans said a redistricting fix was needed, but that Issue 2 wasn’t the right one. They must now move forward with their own plan, taking advantage of the timing, the next census in 2020, making it impossible to project who will have the political advantage.

In fact, a better model was put forward by a Republican, Jon Husted, now Ohio’s secretary of state, when he was in the Ohio Senate. More recently, a bipartisan group of legislators advanced a similar plan. Both are based on the idea that, in the end, it is impossible to take politics out of what is inherently a political process.

The sound idea is to put a bipartisan group of officeholders in charge of redistricting. A supermajority would be needed to pass new districts, with participation required from the minority party, forcing compromise. Such a solution would not require judges to help select members of a citizens commission, or detailed standards for competiveness to be embedded in the state constitution, making changes difficult.

An amendment like the one proposed by Husted should be put before voters as soon as possible.


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