The Voters First initiative, which would alter the current, highly-partisan process for drawing legislative and congressional districts in Ohio, has received broad support from bipartisan groups around the state. Everyone from the NAACP to the League of Women voters to the Libertarian Party has given this plan a thumbs up – everyone, it seems, except the Ohio Republican Party.
And for obvious reasons. Republicans have single-handedly controlled the process for four of the last six cycles. And the results are clear: Republicans control 23 of the 33 State Senate seats, 59 of 99 House seats, and under the new congressional lines they drew, solid control over 12 of the 16 congressional districts goes to Republicans.
Republicans want to keep power in their hands and the numbers on their side. So it’s not surprising that they will oppose, for purely political reasons, any measure, no matter how fair or widely supported, that might challenge that power. But I have a really hard time seeing how anyone is going to take seriously their arguments against Voters First, and in favor of the status quo, given how thoroughly and unapologetically they abused the process during the most recent round of
The Republicans’ chief complaint about the Voters First proposal is that its 12-member commission is completely composed of non-politicians. Seriously. The primary problem with the new process, according to the politicians that currently control it, is that elected officials are NOT involved in the process of choosing their own voters.
The Ohio GOP is going to have a very hard time selling the argument that politicians needs to be involved in redistricting after Ohioans just watched these same Republican politicians spend nearly $10,000 in taxpayer money to rent a secret hotel room in Columbus known as “the bunker” to hide the redistricting process from nosy reporters and members of the public, all while redrawing district lines, without a second thought, at the request of party leaders in order to keep big Republican donors in Republican districts.
OSU Professor of political science Richard Gunther called the recent Republican-controlled redistricting disaster “the most grotesque partisan gerrymander that I, as a political scientist, had ever seen.” And yet Republicans think they can defend the current process against the proposed non-partisan one? It’s going to be an uphill battle to say the least.
While the Voters First team has seen support from professors, voting and civil rights groups and multiple political parties, the only people who appear willing to publicly challenge the initiative are career Republican politicians and GOP party operatives who have a personal, political and financial interest in seeing the current Republican controlled system stay in place.
Proponents and opponents of the initiative appeared on ONN this weekend. On the pro side were Voters First chairwoman (and former director of Ohio Citizen Action’s Money in Politics Project) Catherine Turcer and OSU Law Professor Dan Tokaji, a leading authority on election law and voting rights. And opposing the measure: Matt Borges – a long time Republican political operative who is best known for pleading guilty to public corruption charges in a scandal which likely cost Ohioans millions in bad investments.
The discussion pretty much went as you would expect, with Tokaji and Turcer talking up the merits of the proposal as a fair and transparent replacement for the currently flawed system that allows “partisan politicians and party bosses” to rig the system in their own favor at the expense of Ohio’s voters. All while Borges, himself a “party boss”, complained that the proposal isn’t “bipartisan” enough because Republicans weren’t involved in drafting the language. It’s important to note that this complaint about bipartisanship is coming from the guy whose party, as I just mentioned, spent three months hiding in a hotel room in order to avoid any chance Democrats might get a preview of the new districts they were drawing.
Even if Republicans didn’t make a mockery of the redistricting process last year, their talking points against this proposal would still be weak. And having a spokesman with a history of political corruption doesn’t help much either. Republicans could certainly benefit from having someone besides “partisan politicians and party bosses” make their case. Unfortunately for the ORP, it looks like some of Ohio’s strongest conservative voices aren’t in any hurry to bail them out.
Chris Littleton, who helped lead last year’s successful campaign for the anti-“Obamacare” constitutional amendment, will be staying out of the fight over Voters First. According to Littleton, the current “redistricting process is an absolute mess”. And while he doesn’t necessarily think the Voters First solution is “the right path”, he is unable to throw his support behind the “gerrymandering BS” that we saw last year.
Matt Mayer, former head of the conservative Buckeye Institute, appears to be taking a similar approach. Mr. Mayer told me the he can’t “support the status quo or the proposed reform” but in his latest book – Taxpayers Don’t Stand a Chance – Mayer makes some important points that lend conservative credibility to the Voters First initiative. Specifically, Mayer discusses the key reforms he thinks are necessary in Ohio, one of which is to “Change the Political System by Returning Power to the People”. The primary action item associated with this reform? “Pass legislation or a ballot initiative requiring competitive legislative districts” – which is exactly the goal behind Voters First.
( Side note: While I disagree with Matt on some fundamental policy and ideological issues, I still enjoyed reading the book. He provides a unique, behind-the-scenes look into the minds of Ohio’s conservatives and some interesting insight into the challenges and frustrations faced by ‘the other side’ in key political battles like SB5/Issue 2. )
It looks like the constitutional amendment to alter the existing redistricting process, proposed by Voters First, will likely be on the ballot this fall. And Republicans, caught completely off guard, appear to be standing alone in defense of the current, obviously biased and corrupt system.
Previous attempts to reform Ohio’s redistricting process failed after Ohio’s largest corporations gave millions to in opposition (more on that in an upcoming post). But it looks like this year could be different.
Last year Ohio’s Republicans chose the short term, high-risk, high-reward option of hiding in secret “bunkers” and drawing highly partisan, unbelievably-biased legislative and congressional district lines. This year they are going to seriously regret not conducting a more fair and open process. As Republicans begin to work out their messaging, trying to come up with ways to attack the Voters First amendment, it seems likely they will instead find themselves on the defensive, trying to offer support for the broken system that they so egregiously abused last year.
The Ohio Republican Party completely and totally overreached in their redistricting efforts. They chose to set aside openness and honesty and to instead say “screw you!” to Ohio’s voters, the press and members of other political parties interested in participating in the process. And in doing so, they proved to Ohio that the current process needs to change. As the battle heats up over the Voters First amendment, and Ohio’s Republicans find themselves alone on the losing side of the issue, they will have only themselves to blame.