The Canal Winchester Times

Professor: Issue 2's potential results unpredictable

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In the 2011 general election, Republican candidates garnered about 51 percent of the votes cast, yet came away with roughly two-thirds of the seats up for election.

That disparity was due in no small part to the way legislative and Congressional districts were redrawn by Republicans earlier that year following the 2010 census, said Paul A. Beck, emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University.

Beck was the featured speaker last week at a Citizens for Public Discussion forum held at the Whetstone branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. His topic was "Legislative Redistricting: What Serves Citizens Best?"

"Legislative redistricting, Ohio-style, is a hot topic," said Beck, whose primary focus during his academic career was on political parties and voting behavior.

"We don't tend to think much about the rules under which we play the political game," he said.

Although he delved into the history of how voting blocs are carved up, Beck's major focus was on Issue 2. The constitutional amendment, which would wrest the power to draw legislative districts from the political party in power at the Statehouse and turn it over to a nonpartisan commission, will be on the ballot Nov. 6.

"Politicians recognize that how the district lines are drawn materially affects the outcome of elections," Beck told his audience of about 60 people.

Practically from the beginnings of democracy, those in power have endeavored to creative voting districts that would keep them in power, he said.

"It's natural; it's politics," Beck said.

But is it right? Is it fair?

"Is it a better plan that the status quo?" Beck asked, referring to Issue 2. "I leave that for you to decide."

However, the professor said creating competitive legislative districts is probably desirable, rather than having a system whereby officeholders are chosen in the primaries rather than general elections.

"It's nice to have a choice," Beck said.

"I think competitiveness and fairness should be the primary values," he added later.

Beck said having legislative districts drawn by a commission, as is the practice in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and 14 of the 50 states, is no guarantee of fairness and competitiveness.

In California, he noted, a commission has done more party-favoring redistricting than was the case when legislators did it, whereas in Iowa, where politicians have final say, the districts are by and large fairly drawn and elected officials tend not to tinker to create advantages for one party over another.

"Probably not in Ohio," Beck said of the Iowa approach. "These days, the parties are too divided. Ohioans are not Iowans, I guess you could say."

The commission that would be created if voters approve Issue 2 would consist of four Democrats, four Republicans and four independent voters, appointed by appellate court judges from a pool of 42 residents, nine of whom can be kicked out by the two major political parties, Beck said.

"It's a complicated process designed basically to take the politicians out of the process," he said.

Gerrymandering, the term used to indicate unfairly drawn voting districts and named for Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts in 1812, can take three forms, according to the professor:

* "Cracking," in which naturally occurring political communities are divided up, as was the case with Franklin County in 2001 when it was split among three congressional districts.

* "Packing," in which recognizable voting groups are placed in a single district.

* "Targeting," which involves crafting districts that are favorable or unfavorable to an incumbent.

"Modern computer and GIS (geographic information system) technology turn gerrymandering from an art to a science," Beck said.

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