Redistricting reform stalling in Ohio House

Despite calls for urgency from fellow Republicans, the Ohio House and its leader are pumping the breaks on the latest round of legislation that would overhaul how Ohio draws its election maps.

Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, said passing a plan that would require both Republicans and Democrats to sign off on congressional and state legislative districts is a top priority. The Ohio Senate approved that plan 32-1 in December. Senators reintroduced a bipartisan new version in the new legislative session that began this year.

“I’d expect the senate to act soon,” Faber said.

But the Ohio House, led by Speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, is taking a more deliberate approach.

Rather than address the Senate plan directly in the legislature, Batchelder has decided that redistricting reform should be first taken up by the Constitutional Modernization Commission, a 32-member advisory body that is scheduled to meet 12 times this year. The commission has 10 years to recommend changes to Ohio’s constitution. Any changes would ultimately require the approval of the legislature.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican longtime advocate for redistricting reform, said it’s urgent that the legislature approve something by the end of this year or next. The closer it gets to 2021, when lines will be re-drawn again, the less likely it is that Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly will cooperate to pass a reform measure, he said.

“The longer we wait, the harder it is to do this,” Husted said.

Despite Husted’s calls for haste, Batchelder’s decision to refer the issue to the commission will certainly slow it down. Batchelder said he has no timetable to act on the issue.

“Well, we’ve got to finish it in less than ten years. Other than that, no,” Batchelder said.

Batchelder said the commission will take a less partisan approach to redistricting reform than what the legislature can offer.

“I think the system succeeds now. But if there are people who feel differently, we can look at that,” he said.

State Rep. Mike Curtin, D-Columbus said by referring redistricting to the Constitutional Modernization Commission, Batchelder is making a “calculated chess move.” The issue has been so thoroughly studied that further review is unnecessary, he said.

“That to me looks like a recipe for putting the issue it in the deep freeze,” Curtin said.

Husted said if legislators try to stall redistricting reform, the public will end up going over their heads.

“People are tired of the way that government is dysfunctional, and they know that (redistricting reform) is one of the solutions of reclaiming a functioning government that gets things done and cares about the concerns of average people,” Husted said.

The latest round of partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., illustrates the importance of drawing up more competitive districts, Husted said. The current winner-takes-all system leads to uncompetitive districts, where politicians are elected by partisan primary voters instead of more moderate general election voters.

It’s also led to a congressional map, drawn by Republicans in 2010, that despite Ohio’s status as a swing state, sent 12 Republicans and just four Democrats to Washington, Husted said.

A Democrat and union-backed coalition last year posed redistricting reform to voters via a ballot issue that was soundly rejected. But Husted said he thinks future efforts will be viewed as more bipartisan.

“Any politician who wants to stand in the way of commonsense reform will be seen as obstructionists, and those who are advocating for change will not be afraid to push ahead,” Husted said.

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