By NICOLE HENNESSY
WESTSHORE – 305,391 signatures. That’s what’s needed to get congressional redistricting reform on the ballot in 2018. In Lorain County, 3,891 signatures are needed; and in Cuyahoga that number jumps to 16,838.
At least 10 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election must sign on in half of Ohio’s 88 counties.
Mary Kirtz Von Nortwick, co-president of the League of Women Voters (LWV) Ohio and member of the Oberlin chapter — the only chapter currently operating in Lorain County – acknowledging the massive amount of volunteer hours necessary to pull this off over the next year, said confidently, “Time is on our side.”
After more than 70 percent of voters overwhelmingly approved a 2015 ballot issue (Issue 1) to change how Ohio draws its legislative districts, legislators failed to push a similar bill though the House.
Then, Gov. John Kasich announced he would include congressional redistricting in the state budget he just approved June 30, but ultimately backed off.
Heather Macalla, member of LWV of Greater Cleveland and regional coordinator for the Fair Districts = Fair Elections campaign – which is a partnership project between LWV, Common Cause Ohio and the Ohio Environmental Council – said she was disappointed about Kasich’s decision, but his initial support paired with the voter support for Issue 1 are signals that if enough people are willing to do the work, the campaign will be a success.
Ohio’s 16 districts are widely known as noncompetitive. Though the state tends to be a “purple” or very mixed state, 12 of the districts are majority Republican and four are majority Democrat, which is representative of the way the lines are drawn rather than the constituents in any given area.
Since new lines were drawn after the 2010 census, neither party has successfully flipped a seat.
With the 2020 census looming, many fear a worsening situation if nothing is done, as the improved map-drawing technology now available can create incredibly precise lines, ensuring at least a 20 percent influence over the vote.
Prior to 2010, Macalla says, the technology was capable of influencing about 10 percent of the vote, the results of which created Ohio’s current political situation.
Wearily looking at computerized map-drawing paired with the extensive algorithms or data collection now utilized to pin down information on every voter – things from shopping habits to what an individual is likely to read – Macalla asked, “Are we still living in a democracy?”
Everyone involved in district drawing and reform, from legislators to activists, say that both parties are at fault here, or that its not a party issue at all, but rather a democratic one.
Sen. Gayle Manning said there was bipartisan support for Issue 1 and she said it’s time for the same support to emerge for congressional districts.
“It’s difficult,” Manning said of properly drawing lines and covering all Ohioans fairly.
“But I certainly think there’s better ways to draw the lines, and I look forward to seeing that.”
She also pointed out that she’s more than aware of how mixed Ohio’s voters can be, stating, “I come from a district that is more Democrat than Republican. I am a Republican.” It’s the independent voters she represents that she believes are “pushing this issue more than anyone, and should be, to have their voices heard.”
Avon resident Ken Harbaugh, who is running against U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) for a seat in Ohio’s Republican-controlled 7th district, said the issue of redistricting comes up surprisingly often as he’s out speaking with voters.
Kirtz Von Nortwick says unfair districts are harming more than constituents who aren’t being represented properly or aren’t being heard; there is also harm done to the voting system itself and, really, the democratic process.
“People don’t really pay attention to this kind of thing, and then they start saying, ‘My vote doesn’t count,'” she explained.
What she’d like to tell these voters is: “Well, someone has made sure your vote doesn’t count.” Instead, she fears an apathetic voter is less likely to participate.
Issue 1 changed the game by requiring bipartisan support for district maps, public hearings and a report on the final map from members of the redistricting commission.
Proposed changes to how congressional districts are drawn are similar.
With little money involved in the Fair Districts campaign, but lots of people power, Kirtz Von Nortwick says more volunteers to educate the public and collect signatures are needed, but she’s been heartened to see a recent surge in political participation, especially on the part of young women.
“Parties are interested in power; we’re interested in good government,” she said.
“We can’t eliminate the parties, but we can force them to work together.”
For more information on Fair Districts = Fair Elections or to volunteer visit fairdistrictsohio.org.
SIDE BOX: The Fair Districts = Fair Elections Coalition will be hosting an informational gerrymandering meeting August 15 at 7 p.m. at the Westlake Public Library, 27333 Center Ridge Road.