Typically, laws are implemented through the legislative process by our elected representatives. Twenty-six states and Washington, D.C., however, allow for a system of referendums or public initiatives – a sort of veto right for their citizens, and Ohio is one of them. On Tuesday, Ohioans overwhelmingly approved an amendment to their state constitution called Issue 1– calling for a renewal in the democratic process by more fairly drawing up voting districts. In fact, according to Cleveland.com “with 92% of the vote counted this morning the issue was passing 72 percent to 28 percent with ‘yes’ votes in favor of the referendum outnumbering ‘no’ votes by 1.2 million.”
Issue 1 was sponsored by Common Cause Ohio and the League of Women Voters of Ohio to help organize fair districting in the election process, and they are jubilant over their victory. “For so long, these state legislative districts have been drawn to favor one party over the other” said Catherine Turcer of Common Cause. “This is an amendment that does renew faith in the democratic process.” Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio said: “Ohio voters sent a clear message today…They want districts to be fair and the winners to be determined by the voters.”
Winners to be determined by the voters – what a novel idea! Redistricting in order to gain a partisan advantage is known as gerrymandering, and has become one of the key tools in the Republican war chest to repress voters and entrench their stolen gains. Since districts are usually drawn up once in ten years based upon the census, district mapping has incredibly important long-term effects on the political process. In Ohio’s case that process is the responsibility of an apportionment board, made up of the governor, secretary of state, an auditor, and two legislators – one from each party. However, under Issue 1, while the redistricting process is still the responsibility of the apportionment board, the new amendment “ensures there will be at least two members from the minority party on the new seven-member board. There was only one Democrat on the five-member board that drew the current districts in 2011…Support from two members of the minority party is required to approve a map for the full decade. A map still can be approved by a majority vote, but without the two votes from the minority party, the whole process will have to be redone four years later” – not ten.
While it is hoped that by the end of four years term limits and subsequent elections will have pushed some apportionment board members out of office, the most important change is that the process is required to be fair and public. Under Issue 1, districts must be contiguous – “keeping counties, towns, and townships in the same districts if possible,” and the apportionment board will be required to hold three public meetings, which will be streamed for online viewing.
In addition to Common Cause, and the League of Women voters there were more than 100 organizations across the political spectrum from the ACLU to the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. While this particular effort is on a state and local level, it does show that the voting public wants its elected officials held accountable by taking away their ability to gerrymander districts – assuring their own political preservation. This process is not only the result of a herculean grassroots effort, but is hopefully sets an important precedent that the rest of the nation can draw from.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.