From the Daily: Fairer lines, better democracy

Sunday, November 8, 2015 - 6:56pm

In this month of football and Blood Battle rivalry, we do not always give our neighbors to the south a lot of credit. But last week’s voter approval of a proposal to curb gerrymandering in Ohio’s legislative districts deserves our admiration, if not our jealousy.

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing congressional or legislative districts to concentrate voters, primarily based on political party lines. These politically polarized districts often result in general elections in which the candidate of the majority party has no real competition, leading to fairly predictable election results. This practice endures because many states allow congressional and legislative districts to be drawn by partisan commissions.

Ohio’s voter-approved law, termed Issue 1 on the ballot, takes a small step toward changing this democracy-threatening practice. It requires the commission that designates Ohio’s legislative districts to have at least two members from each party, and requires a bipartisan vote to approve district lines for 10 years while limiting the duration of the district borders to four years in the absence of bipartisan support. It also amends the state’s constitution to require that district borders be drawn without favoring a party.

While these changes will not apply to congressional districts, they will still significantly impact Ohio’s political climate. It is now in the best interest of commissioners to draw borders based on a bipartisan consensus so the borders will be approved for a full 10 years, and so they can withstand a court challenge based on the new constitutional amendment.

Michigan can and should enact legislation that goes even further to affect congressional redistricting. In the 2014 election, Republicans in Michigan won nine out of 14 seats for the U.S. House of Representatives with only 47.5 percent of the votes, while Democrats won only five seats despite winning 49 percent of the vote. This disparity is inexcusable and makes it increasingly difficult for Democrats to gain fair representation in the state.

The redistricting process in Michigan is currently controlled by the majority party of the state legislature. But in July, state Reps. Jon Hoadley (D–Kalamazoo) and Jeremy Moss (D–Southfield) reintroduced legislation to create a citizen-led bipartisan redistricting commission. If this legislation is passed, a bipartisan commission would be formed and composed of 14 members: five from the Democratic Party, five from the Republican Party and four with no party affiliation. Those who served as an elected official, lobbyist or party-elected official in the previous 10 years would be ineligible to serve on the commission.

The proposal would require two-thirds approval in both the State House and Senate, as well as statewide voter approval. Unfortunately, Representative Lisa Lyons (R–Alto), chair of the House Elections and Ethics Committee, has announced she will not allow the bill to see the light of day in her committee.

This is unacceptable. The fact that just 63 percent of eligible Michigan voters cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election, with over 20 percent fewer voting in 2014, demonstrates that voters feel disenfranchised by the political process. The only way hope can be restored in the political process is by putting elections back in the hands of voters.