Northland News

Professor ponders both sides of redistricting debate

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To the victor belong the spoils, former New York Gov. William Learned Marcy said during a speech in 1832.

That's been the case in politics "in any democracy since the inception of voting," said Paul A. Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.

An effort is under way to change that in Ohio through a constitutional amendment that will appear on the November ballot.

Beck, who retired as a distinguished professor of social and behavioral sciences in June, has been tapped by Citizens for Public Discussion to give an unbiased, nonpartisan talk about Issue 2, set for Sept. 20 at the Whetstone branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, 3909 N. High St.

The program is scheduled from 7 to 8:30 p.m., with Beck leading a question-and-answer session following his 30-minute presentation.

"The Council for Public Deliberation (since renamed Citizens for Public Discussion) was created to promote the concepts and practice of addressing public problems through public deliberation," according to the local nonprofit organization's website.

Presentations such as the one Beck will give Sept. 20 normally are put on in conjunction with the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Columbus, but because the statewide organization is part of the coalition backing Issue 2, the group is going it alone this time, Executive Director David B. Patton said.

Speaking from Colorado, where he was on vacation last week, Beck said he intended to take the same approach to the audience attending "Legislative Redistricting: What Serves Citizens Best?" that he did when he was before a classroom.

"I really seek to teach students how to think about politics," he said. "Not what to think, but how to think."

If approved by voters, Issue 2 would create a 12-member state-funded commission to draw legislative and congressional districts -- a job that now falls to the party in power in the state legislature.

The breakdown of backers for and opponents of the measure is almost strictly along party lines, with Republicans favoring the status quo and Democrats, lacking a majority in either the House or Senate, favoring the change.

"With the certification of our petitions, voters in Ohio will have the opportunity to let the politicians know that the days of a rigged system to protect themselves and their political cronies is over," Catherine Turner, chairwoman of the Issue 2-backing Voters First, said in a statement Aug. 6 after Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted certified the group's 406,514-signature petitions.

"Your right to vote is being threatened," counters the website Protect Your Vote Ohio. "An organization called Voters First Ohio wants to put a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot this fall that would strip the process of redistricting out of the hands of Ohio voters and put it in the hands of unelected bureaucrats.

"Simply put, your voice and your vote will be taken away."

"These days in the United States, there are usually two considerations that the people who are doing the redistricting try to take into account," Beck said last week. "One is they try to protect incumbents. The other is they try do it for a partisan advantage.

"If you look at the way the districts are created, most of them are not competitive at all. That's a disadvantage to voters, because voters in the end really have no choice."

More and more in the United States, and most especially abroad, independent commissions such as the one proposed under Issue 2 are becoming the norm, Beck said.

"Most other democracies, at least the older ones, have kind of resolved the issue by setting up independent commissions that are more or less neutral, or at least as much as you can be in these things," he said.

Beck plans to discuss the historical background of redistricting, drawing on his specialty in political parties and elections. He indicated he will, of course, touch upon Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), the one-time governor of Massachusetts.

Gerry, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the fifth vice president of the United States, is best remembered for trying to protect his own political party's interests in drawing legislative districts. Opposition newspapers published drawings of a creature shaped like one of those districts that gave rise to the term gerrymander.

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