Update Districts Fairly

Update Districts Fairly

Update Districts Fairly

As the Republicans who control state government prepare to redraw Ohio's congressional and legislative districts, they face a choice.

They can adjust the boundaries of these districts to serve voters, by promoting truly competitive elections that provide effective representation. Or they can stack the deck in a way that gives their party an unfair -- and undemocratic -- advantage in elections for the next decade.

History suggests Gov. John Kasich, the General Assembly, and the state Apportionment Board will opt for the latter approach and gerrymander Ohio within an inch of its life. But breaking with the past and allowing both major parties to compete fairly for voters' favor would encourage the election of centrist candidates over ideological extremists at either end of the political spectrum. The choice GOP leaders make will prove instructive.

Ohio must adjust its political districts every 10 years, to account for population shifts measured by the U.S. Census. Ohio will lose two of its 18 seats in the U.S. House in the 2012 election because the state's population grew so slowly relative to other states in the past decade. Governor Kasich and the large Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature will redraw the House districts.

The legislature still will include 33 senators and 99 representatives, but their districts' boundaries will change as well. The Apportionment Board, which has four Republican members to one Democrat, will oversee that process.

Failure to enact the redistricting plans on time could delay the state's primary election from next March to May. That would diminish the influence of Ohio -- a key swing state -- on the 2012 presidential nominating process.

It's more important to do the reapportionment process right than fast. But there's no reason state officials can't achieve both goals, if they are genuinely determined to do so.

Modern computer technology can slice and dice population data for redistricting to protect incumbent politicians of both parties, to confer maximum advantages on the party in control, or both. That freedom is somewhat limited by federal voting rights law that, for example, safeguards minority representation.

Even so, Ohio now has 13 Republican U.S. House members and 5 Democrats. Despite last year's landslide GOP victory, no one would credibly argue such a breakdown truly represents the partisan balance of voters across the state. The last redistricting process 10 years ago, also dominated by Republicans, had a lot to do with creating that outcome.

But the same technology that promotes partisan gerrymandering also can allow the drawing of districts that are politically competitive, in primary as well as general elections, are geographically compact, and preserve local communities of interest. It's up to political leaders to decide how to use those numbers, and to determine how open and transparent the reapportionment process is to Ohioans.

It would make more sense to create a single House district with roughly the same boundaries as the Toledo metropolitan area than to spread local voters over two or even three districts that sprawl across northern and western Ohio. Instead, Republican advocates are talking about stretching the 9th District, represented by Toledo Democrat Marcy Kaptur, even farther east into Lorain County. Such a fragmented district would be neither compact nor a regional community of interest.

More-competitive political districts, in northwest Ohio and across the state, would increase political effectiveness and accountability. Reducing competition through gerrymandering would have the opposite effect.

Ohio voters deserve to pick their elected officials, not the other way around. The governor and other state leaders need to keep that truism in mind as they update political districts.