The well-funded organization We Are Ohio announced on May 21 that it will be taking up redistricting laws as its next major initiative by joining forces with Ohio Voters First, an organization that was created in response to a Republican redistricting plan that created 12 solidly Republican districts and four largely Democratic districts.
We Are Ohio is already known for leading the charge against the state legislature’s attempts to weaken collective bargaining among public employees with Senate Bill 5 and lower the window of time to vote with House Bill 194 and now Senate Bill 295.
The move to support Ohio Voters First was done in part as a response to legislation like Senate Bill 5, the anti-collective bargaining bill which was overturned by voters last November, and House Bill 194, which this year would have eliminated opportunities to vote early and disallowed poll workers to guide voters to the correct precinct. Senate Bill 295 repeals parts of House Bill 194, but it does not repeal rules that close polls the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before election day.
“We see this legislature that is out of control and passing laws that go directly against the will of the voters and citizens,” says Dennis Willard, a spokesperson for We Are Ohio.
Redistricting is a process in which the state legislature redraws district boundaries. Originally, redistricting was meant to help states and districts keep up with shifting populations. It is typically done every 10 years in response to the national census.
However, politicians were quick to hijack the process. In what is known as “gerrymandering,” politicians redraw district boundaries in a way that gives them or their political parties favorable demographics in terms of getting elected.
Under this process, the congressional district that includes Cincinnati was reformed to include more suburban and rural areas in Hamilton County and Warren County, potentially giving Republicans more influence in the district.
By supporting Ohio Voters First, We Are Ohio is seeking to make the system more connected to voters.
“It’s time to let voters truly choose their elected representatives, instead of politicians going into the backroom, rigging the system and choosing their voters,” Willard says.
“We really need to put this back into the hands of the citizens.”
Ohio Voters First is currently trying to get enough signatures to put an amendment on the November ballot that would give redistricting powers to an independent citizens commission.
We Are Ohio will be contributing its established social network to the fight.
“We have more than half a million email addresses,” Willard says. “We have more than 100,000 Facebook friends. What we’ll be doing a lot of is just letting our network know how they can be involved, how they can volunteer, circulate petitions and sign petitions.”
There is also discussion about possible financial support, but Willard says nothing is settled yet.
Ian Nickey, spokesperson for Ohio Voters First, was happy to see We Are Ohio on board.
“We’re very excited about We Are Ohio, as we are excited about all the other organizations,” Nickey says. “We Are Ohio brings a lot of energy, as well as social networks, and the other work they’ve done in informing and educating their volunteers. They bring a lot to the table.”
Ohio Voters First was formed after calls to action from the League of Women Voters were ignored for “quite some time,” according to Nickey.
“It’s been 10-plus years. They’ve taken this initiative to Republican-controlled legislatures, they’ve taken this issue to Democrat-controlled legislatures and they weren’t able to get any traction,” Nickey says. “They finally felt that now is the time to take this out of the politicians’ hands and put it back in the people’s hands.”
If the amendment passes, the independent citizens commission will be made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and four Independents.
“They would be tasked with creating the new districts,” Nickey says. “They would have a process. There would be requirements for fairness and competitiveness, and that’s to the benefit of all Ohioans.”
The commission would kick in immediately, and districts would be redrawn by the commission before the next federal or state election.
The new districts would have to be more compact, preferably following established county, city, town and municipality boundaries as much as possible. The new districts would also have to avoid giving one political party an advantage, and political party representation across districts would have to match results from a recent statewide election.
The initiative also has a process for picking the members of the commission.
“Citizens would apply, and then a panel of appellate court judges would evaluate them for particular qualifications,” Nickey says.
Those particular qualifications are listed in the ballot initiative’s language. Among them, candidates would not be eligible if they or any immediate family members have served as a federal or state official or lobbyist within 10 years of applying. Candidates also would not qualify if they have run for office, acted as a paid employee for a campaign or political party, or made a political contribution that exceeds $5,000 within five years of applying.
Redistricting cost Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland his congressional seat this year. When Republicans redrew the district map in Ohio in response to the 2010 census, they did so in a way that pit Kucinich against Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur in a primary. The two prominent liberals in Congress went head to head, and Kucinich lost by nearly 30 points.
Other states have already undertaken measures to safeguard against gerrymandering. California recently enacted reform that calls on an independent citizens commission to draw districts. Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho and New Jersey also use independent or bipartisan commissions.