Policy Today magazine cover
October 19, 2005

Ohio has joined California in calling a special election on legislative redistricting this November. While Californians agonize over "protected incumbents" as they head to the polls, Ohioans are confronting a disturbing nexus of gerrymandering and corruption.

There's no greater contrast in America than the images projected by Southern California and Northern Ohio: a fantasyland of movie stars, palm trees and overstated wealth versus the gritty reality of aging factories, frigid winters and a workforce struggling to make ends meet. Yet this November 8, voters in both states will go to the polls to decide the same issue: whether to strip their elected representatives of their constitutional mandate to draw legislative districts and hand the task to someone else—presumably more adept at promoting competitive elections rather than blessing the majority party's or incumbents' right to reelect their own.

While California has long been a trendsetter, Common Cause President Chellie Pingree poignantly suggests "there's a sense among voters that Ohio is being watched." Ms. Pingree may be more prescient than she realizes. Andy Douglas, a former Ohio State Supreme Court Justice, notes that, "one of the chief opponents [of the redistricting amendment], a major Republican political figure, said he would 'have $5 million, $10 million, or $15 million if he needed it to oppose the measure.' This has the attention of the White House. It's not only a focus on 2005, but also 2008."

Ted Strickland, U.S. Congressman (D-OH) and gubernatorial candidate, concurs. "Something
quite unique is happening in Ohio. Is Ohio  a bellwether of what's happening nationally? It might be."

What's on offer?

Ohioans will vote on four ballot initiatives: redistricting, campaign finance, and election board reform, as well as more liberal rules for absentee balloting. "The cornerstone was always reapportionment, however," says Douglas.

Reeling from recent pay-to-play scandals, as well as Governor Taft's conviction for violating state ethics laws, Ohio voters may have more reason to act than those supporting Governor Schwarzenegger's "California Recovery Team." Says Ohio State University Professor Herb Asher, "it won't clean up all the corruption, but will start in making the political system more responsive to voters."

Whose issue is this anyway?

The Ohio campaign got underway with a ruckus over reform proponents' use of out-of-state professionals to collect the necessary signatures to put the measures on the ballot. "A number of us believe that you should be an Ohio resident if you're going to circulate a petition to change the Constitution," says State Senator and Majority Leader, Randy Gardner (R-Bowling Green). "For the most part, the interests that are out of power are trying to take advantage the system for their own benefit. But I don't think it should be disguised as a grass roots, good government reform."

The courts disagreed with Gardner on the first point, and he appears to be wrong on the second, though the campaign quickly drew out-of-state attention—and money—Democratic and Republican alike. House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D-Catawba Island) counters in practical terms. "It doesn't matter where the money comes from, but we had 390,000 people who signed the petitions," he says. "It's about people in Ohio who wanted reform."

Several sources noted that the proposed amendments originated at a dinner following President Bush's re-election in November 2004. Participants included Paul Tipps, a former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party; Ron Alexander, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association; and Andy Douglas, former Republican State Supreme Court justice and now OCSEA's executive director.

Representative Strickland believes multiple forces are at work. "The political forces driving the initiative are complex," he says. "Many of those who support the issue in Ohio are driven by a desire to have a more democratic process. Others just see this in raw political terms. Their motivation comes from having an influence over politics in Ohio. But it's not something that was brought to Ohio."

One of the difficulties voters will face in reaching a verdict is that redistricting touches a number of issues—incumbency, for example. The longer a legislator serves, the more experienced and knowledgeable he or she becomes. On the other hand, as Douglas suggests, "when people get so impressed with their own grandeur, the result becomes an arrogance of power. They think, 'no one can challenge us' and under today's system, they are right."

"In the 1980s, Democrats drew the legislative lines," points out Gardner. "But for most of the decade, Republicans won in the Senate. Obviously, it wasn't because someone was controlling the legislative lines."

Adds House Minority Leader Chris Redfern, "at the end of the day, it's about being on issue. How do we keep the factory open? I talk about Main Street: jobs, education, and healthcare." He also notes that having "an A+ NRA rating" doesn't hurt.

Redfern supports the amendments. "If we draw the lines tighter, it increases the likelihood of bipartisanship," he explains. "You shouldn't be opposed to these kinds of considerations if you're right on the issues."

The party line

Reapportionment abuts a hard political truth: most Americans identify with one party or the other. Furthermore, even if the minority party in a district can persuade and fund a terrific candidate to run, he or she will lose in a gerrymandered district. "Lots of people are Democrats and Republicans," says Professor Asher. "That's the way they grew up. Others are issued based—they like the candidates or their ideology. When you ask people which party they belong to, two-thirds answer Democrat or Republican. Even among the one-third that says they're independent, two-thirds say they lean one way or the other."

Add that to the phenomena of incumbency, and the challenge becomes clear. "Some of those advantages are well earned; some are not," says Asher. "But one undeserved advantage is to draw lines that protect an incumbent. The reasons that incumbents win are many, but one should not be that the districts are stacked in their favor."

The downside of 'safe districts'

So, who cares—what's the problem with 'safe districts'? One might be polarization. The average margin of victory in Ohio has been 35%-38% in the Ohio House and Senate respectively. "There's little or no incentive for a politician to go to the middle, to evaluate both spectrums of the issue," says Lisa Prosienski, manager of state campaigns at Common Cause.

And, as Strickland notes, "a lot of Americans have become disenfranchised. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republicans have a majority, which has led the current Republican leadership to shut out dissent. By not allowing Democrats to have any say, nearly 50% of the citizens of the country have their representation ignored."

Another is the potential for abuse when one party controls the political apparatus. Redfern points
out that the Ohio House Juvenile and Family Law Committee held 16 weeks of hearings on gay marriage. The Ways and Means Committee met once to discuss important tax issues. Redfern sees this as a deliberate strategy on the part of House Republicans "to motivate and antagonize their electoral base in a close election."

"Yeah, but . . ."

For the most part, the state's political leaders are guarded about the outcome. "It will be waged mostly on TV and depend on which side can be most persuasive in its TV ads," says Gardner. "There's no question that Reform Ohio Now has public cynicism on its side."

Much comes down to those precious 30-second TV spots. "On a scale of one to 10, 30-second commercials rate a one—they are the most important," says Redfern. "Most people don't spend their time investigating candidates. They do it through the medium. It's self-perpetuating."

Adds Strickland, "in my experience with redistricting, if the issues become confusing, and the voters don't understand them, they won't vote for it. If the issue becomes so controversial or confusing, there's a tendency to vote 'no.' Their decision is not necessarily based on the merits, but simply because they will have heard conflicting arguments."

Initiative opponents seem to be following a "yeah, but" strategy. "Do we want bipartisan drawing? Yes. Do we want campaign spending reform? Yes. Are there some reforms that
might be helpful? Definitely, yes. But not those proposed by Reform Ohio Now," says Senator Gardner.

Proponents are pinning their hopes on more idealistic grounds. "People do not wake up in the morning and think about issues of fundamental reform," explains Pingree. "But they are very clear that it has an effect on their lives. They seem to see that the system is broken. It's hard to win reform issues on the technicalities. You can hope that voters will do the right thing for democracy."

Or, as she puts it more succinctly, "There's a fundamental belief in fairness. It's OK for either side to win, but they can't cheat."