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Edward B. Foley
Free & Fair is a collection of writings by Edward B. Foley, one of the nation's preeminent experts on election law.

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Ohio's Dramatic Citizen Initiative: "Reform Ohio Now"

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October 11, 2005

A former Ohio State Supreme Court Justice, Andrew Douglas, and a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Ohio State University, Dr. Herb Asher, lead a coalition of progressives, Reform Ohio Now, that have put on the Ohio Nov. 4, 2005 ballot a series of state constitutional amendments that could revolutionize Ohio politics. It is a stunning opportunity for Ohio voters to reshape the Ohio political system.

Ohio is a state with both major parties in tatters. Democrats have self-destructed and do not hold a single state-wide public office (unless one counts a lone Supreme Court Justice). Republicans, with control of all state-wide offices as well as control of both houses of the state legislature, have used their power to take illegal gifts, mismanage state trust funds, and generally run a "pay-to-play" system of politics in which trading favors is the name of the game. This kind of logrolling politics has its origins in the Mark Hanna state political machine from the turn of the century.

Rather than a traditional partisan approach to the state's political problems (that would view the Republican problems as a boon for Democrats), the Reform Ohio Now folks have decided to scrap the system that produced the mess and hope that a new system will produce better, more accountable elected officials.

The changes make up four separate citizen initiatives on the ballot. Issue 2 makes it much easier for Ohioans to vote by mail. Issue 3 significantly reduces the monetary caps on individual campaign contributions. Issue 4 creates a new legislative districting authority, and Issue 5 creates a new independent State Board of Elections.

Of the four initiatives, the most path-breaking change comes in Issue 4. The amendment creates a new independent board and empowers the board to redefine the state's legislative districts. At present elected politicians draw the legislative districts and they "logroll" (trade favors) to maximize the number of safe districts in the state. It is also known as gerrymandering, usually when the deal making produces districts that are oddly shaped.

Year after year incumbents win re-election with little or no substantial opposition. The percentage of races won by incumbents is usually in the eighties and the percentage of races won by the incumbent party is usually in the nineties. There are very few truly contested elections for legislative seats in Ohio .

If Issue 4 passes, anyone can propose state-wide district maps to the new Redistricting Commission and the board must choose the map that scores the highest on a pre-determined scale of values. The scale is designed to encourage contested elections and discourage the creation of "safe districts" for either party. Issue 4, if passed, will no doubt radically alter the political map of the state. The current geographic political structure of both parties will evaporate.

This is powerful stuff and those now in power know it-and don't like it. Leaders of the Republican Party, for example, have already come out against Issue 4 and are forming political action committees to oppose it. Their most successful tactic is to draw outrageous district maps (layered, thin, border to border districts) and claim that the new system would allow them. Additional charges will follow. The opponents have had some success as Issue 4 is the only one of the ballot issues shown to be losing in the early polls, 38 percent opposed, 26 percent in favor, and 36 percent undecided.

If Reform Ohio loses Issue 4, they lose their fight to transform Ohio politics. Issues 2, 3, and 5 make incremental changes; Issue 4 restructures the landscape of state politics. The Issue offers Ohio citizens disgruntled with the shenanigans of those in power a second alternative to the traditional "voting the rascals out" (voting against incumbents), the new option of voting out "politics as usual."

For additional commentary by Professor Oesterle on the separate Issue 1, also on the ballot in Ohio on November 8, see Referendum in Ohio Survives Single Separate Vote Rule Challenge.