I’ve spent over 25 years fighting for civil and human rights in Ohio. I am entering my twentieth year as the president for the Ohio State Conference of the NAACP. I spent 20 years in the Ohio legislature serving in both the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House.
As a lifelong fighter advocate for racial justice, I can say without equivocation that the best way to protect democracy is to empower ordinary voters. We can do this in Ohio by ensuring that ordinary voters draw our state’s legislative and congressional district lines. That is why I’m supporting the Citizens Not Politicians Amendment, which will end gerrymandering by empowering citizens to draw legislative districts using an open and transparent process.
Why does this matter? On multiple occasions, the state and congressional maps drawn by Ohio legislators have been ruled unconstitutional. For too long, politicians have adopted maps that protect incumbents, limit voters’ ability to hold their leaders accountable, and disregard constitutional requirements for fair districts. The constitution requires – and the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed in 5 separate opinions – that state legislative maps meet a representational fairness requirement. This means a minimum of 45 Democratic seats in the House and 15 Democratic seats in the Senate to reflect the 54% Republican – 46% Democratic partisanship of our state in the last decade.
Ohioans expect elected officials to follow the rules. They expect elected officials to protect democracy and uphold the state constitution. But for years, Ohio has been one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation. And it’s not just civil rights leaders in Ohio who have been saying this. The USC Schwarzenegger Institute found that Ohio and nine other states were “classified as the worst U.S state legislative partisan gerrymanders based on analyses of the statewide popular vote in 2017 or 2018 state legislative elections and the partisan composition of the state legislative chambers in 2019.”
Unfortunately, politicians and lobbyists in Ohio have manipulated voting districts to protect their interests and secure their re-election. This process has allowed politicians to choose their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians. And in a democracy, power should rest with the people. Voters should choose their candidates, not the other way around. But we must fight for this power. Just because we aren’t privy to backroom discussions, doesn’t mean that we should have a seat at the table or that our voice shouldn’t be heard.
By placing a measure on the ballot to take power away from politicians and place it with the people, we level the playing field and set future generations up for success. We do not have to allow politicians to ignore our voice or the directive of the court.
If we do not have a nonpartisan group of Ohioans who are drawing maps, ordinary Ohioans will continue to be locked out of our democracy. The Citizens Not Politicians Amendment replaces the current politician-dominated commission with a 15-member Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission (OCRC). OCRC membership will be required to include Republican, Independent, and Democratic voters. And new constitutional language will require commissioners to be “well qualified and collectively form a representative cross-section of Ohio.”
Importantly, the commission bans current/recent political officeholders, those with strong political ties, and lobbyists from drawing maps. The Commission also makes it unconstitutional to draw maps that favor one party. To place the measure on the general election ballot, petitioners must collect 413,487 valid voter signatures by July 3, 2024.
When it comes to redistricting, politicians have proven they can’t look beyond their personal or their political party’s interests. But we cannot safeguard our right to fair elections and representative government if citizens do not drive the process. We’ve tried it their way time and time again. History has taught us that it doesn’t work.
Tom Roberts is the president of the Ohio State Conference of the NAACP and a member of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.
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