Ohio’s only statewide issue on the May 8 primary ballot nearly didn’t make it – though it’s been talked about for decades. There's a long history of the complicated Issue 1, which some activists call a historic effort to change the way the Ohio’s Congressional district map is created.
Ohio’s current Congressional district map was drawn by Republican state lawmakers with input from party consultants in a Columbus hotel room in 2011. And it shows: The map includes 12 Republican districts and just four Democratic ones in a state that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016.
As a result, Ohio is considered among the most gerrymandered maps in the country.
“When I think about where have we come from, how long has this been going on – I go back and think about the first time there was a redistricting reform measure on the ballot, which was in 1981," said Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio. “I got involved 20 years ago. I’m new at this.”
Common Cause pushed two recent ballot issues on redistricting, in 2005 and 2012, both of which failed. Turcer finally found success in 2015 when voters approved a bipartisan commission developed with state lawmakers to redraw state House and state Senate districts.
She started working on Congressional redistricting last spring with a coalition of citizens groups called Fair Districts Fair Elections, which wanted to see a ballot issue this fall.
Their effort got the attention of state lawmakers, who also felt pressure from Gov. John Kasich when he considered putting redistricting reform in his budget last year. Sen. Vern Sykes (D-Akron) and Sen. Matt Huffman (R-Lima) had worked on the 2015 plan, and Huffman said in September they’d come up with something on Congressional redistricting that wasn’t perfect but would work.
"Keep in mind that the last two efforts that were put on the ballot, really, by an outside group who said, ‘We’re just going to do what we think is right,’ have failed pretty miserably,” Huffman said.
“We must have a transparent, bipartisan approach to redistricting,” Carole Lunny said. Camille Winbish commented, “The General Assembly has the opportunity to restore fairness in our elections.” And Kathy Deitsch added, “Gerrymandering is really bullying.”
In January, Republican lawmakers unveiled their constitutional amendment that kept the Congressional map-drawing power with the legislature, not with the bipartisan commission that will draw those state legislative districts. Those lawmakers wanted the Fair Districts Fair Elections coalition to endorse their plan so voters could consider it in May.
“Sixty-five of Ohio’s 88 counties cannot be split at all,” explained Rep. Kirk Schuring (R-Canton). “Eighteen of Ohio’s counties can be split only once. Only five counties can be split twice. So under this particular proposal, a county cannot be split three different times.”
The amendment also says a map that would last 10 years, until the next census, must get 50 percent support from the minority party. If that doesn’t happen, the map would be drawn by the bipartisan commission.
Then, if that map isn’t approved, a 10-year map could pass with one-third of the minority party’s support. Or a four-year map could be passed without minority party approval, but stricter rules would be attached.
Huffman says there are a lot of incentives to bring in everyone and pass the 10 year map the first time, and not hold out for the other options.
“It creates a lot of chaos and ‘What’s going to happen again in four years?’” he says. “I think for the public, having changes in Congressional districts and who their representative is, is generally not a good idea.”
Both major political parties and many professional groups have endorsed Issue 1. But among those with concerns is the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which says it doesn’t guarantee there won’t be gerrymandering but does make improvements in the process.
Though the proposal is a compromise, the Fair Districts Fair Elections coalition is fully on board. But activists say they’re still circulating petitions for their fall ballot issue – just in case.