Three cheers for Republican Maureen O’Connor, the recently retired chief justice of Ohio’s Supreme Court: She said earlier this month she wants to take part in an effort to remove partisan politics from the way Ohio draws its General Assembly and congressional districts — a reform that Ohio sorely needs.
“Now that I’m retired, I can be involved in efforts to maybe pass another constitutional amendment.” she told the Columbus Metropolitan Club on Feb. 1. “And this time the constitutional amendment de-politicizes the Redistricting Commission,” she said.
Various proposals are being discussed. But O’Connor has made it clear she believes independent districting commissions, whose members aren’t elected officials, are preferable to panels that include such officeholders:
“The Ohio Redistricting Commission should not be composed of people for whom the temptation may be too great to place political self-preservation above selfless service, regardless of party affiliation,” O’Connor wrote last year in an opinion overturning one map the existing commission proposed. “What is needed in Ohio is an independent redistricting commission,” she said, citing mapping panels in Arizona, California and Michigan that don’t include elected officials.
Last decade, however, that wasn’t the route Ohio followed. In 2015 (as to General Assembly districts) and 2018 (as to congressional districts), Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved the earlier amendments to which O’Connor referred. The General Assembly proposed each one.
In repeated litigation over the current districts the commission drew for last November’s election, O’Connor was the only Ohio Supreme Court Republican to side with Democratic challengers to those districts’ boundaries.
Nonetheless, thanks to the intervention of a federal court panel — composed of two judges appointed by a Republican president, one by a Democratic president — the GOP-drawn districts took effect for the 2022 election, leading to record GOP majorities in the General Assembly. That is, the 2015 and 2018 amendments turned out to be vain attempts to keep partisan politicking out of district-drawing, though Democrats did pick up one more U.S. House seat than they had held earlier. Districts must again be redrawn for 2024.
At the core of the processes set up by the 2015 and 2018 amendments is the nominally bipartisan Redistricting Commission. In practice it’s been anything but bipartisan.
Even Gov. Mike DeWine, a member of the commission’s GOP majority, has conceded that the district-drawing methods Ohio now uses must be replaced.
The Redistricting Commission is composed of two Republican state legislators; two Democratic state legislators; and three of Ohio’s elected statewide executive officeholders — DeWine; State Auditor Keith Faber; and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. That gives the Redistricting Commission a 5-2 GOP majority.
“(The commission) didn’t work, and we need to fix it,” DeWine recently told the (Toledo) Blade’s editorial page. “Taking (the process) out of the hands, frankly, of elected officials is probably a good idea. How we do that, though, to make sure it is done in an impartial way, is a difficult challenge.”
It’s not just a good idea, it’s an excellent idea, and several groups are working to draft a reform plan, then get it on Ohio’s statewide ballot. That’s no easy task, gathering roughly 450,000 voter signatures.
Specifics and timing are still under discussion. But a redistricting reform would likely be aimed at November 2024?s statewide ballot and have three core principles: No elected officials; political balance; and funding insulated from partisan manipulation.
O’Connor’s support for redistricting reform is commendable, and welcome, and will add keen insights in how to fix what is now Ohio’s broken method for drawing what should be fair legislative and congressional districts.