• Molly Lee

Voting Districts: Does Oregon Have a Gerrymander Problem?

In an effort tied to next year’s Census, we have a chance in Oregon to lead the way on drawing fair voting districts and rejecting gerrymandering of any sort. This process has been referred to in the news as “redistricting,” and I’m here to tell you why we should bother adding it to our already full plates as we defend democracy and push for progressive change.

Aren’t we all good in Oregon?

No, we’re not.

In Oregon, state legislators control how voting boundaries are drawn. It’s called the Legislative Model, and it determines both the state and Congressional districts. Legislators only do it every 10 years after the Census. So. one of the pressing factors is time; we won’t get to tackle this again until 2030.

The other issue is those state senators and representatives who control the process. To varying degrees, the state Democrats who are in the majority have tried to include the Republicans and strive for fairness, but the fact remains it is still technically a partisan effort. And who knows which party will remain in the majority through 2030?

Under the current process, if the legislature can’t work it out, the Secretary of State takes over. In Oregon, that is currently Republican Dennis Richardson, making it still a partisan effort of one person, despite any steps he may take to be fair. It’s worth noting that the legislature has only twice in history successfully passed a voting district plan without the secretary of state needing to step in: 1911 and 2011.

Also at stake is a likely new Congressional district that would need to be added due to expected increases in Oregon’s population.

Let’s be like California, but even better!

The League of Women Voters, City Club of Portland and Common Cause are backing an effort that would take redistricting out of the hands of partisans and put it into the hands of an independent commission. This would be very similar to what California did in 2008 to mostly positive assessments by independent evaluators.

The independent commission model would involve a thoroughly public, multipartisan and transparent process to choose commission members and set the rules of how it operates. This requires a change to the Oregon Constitution, and the easiest way to do that would be for the legislature to refer it to the voters in November 2020. But if they won’t, supporters will have to gather signatures for an initiative petition.

The independent commission the League, City Club and Common Cause are hoping legislators will refer to the voters would have retired state judges evaluate applicants to an 11-member commission. The three judges choosing the commission must include one who has been registered for at least two years with the largest political party in the state; one who has been registered for at least two years with the second largest political party in the state; and one who has been registered within the last two years with either of the two largest parties in the state.

You may be wondering about the non-affiliated voters who are quickly becoming the largest majority of Oregon’s registered voter population. They are not in an official party, so it wouldn’t count under the “political party” designation for the judges or the commission members, but these voters would still be fairly represented through the commission appointee process, as detailed below.

The nitty gritty

As for the commission membership itself, the panel of judges would screen applicants to rule out elected officials, those related to elected officials, those who ran for office as well as  lobbyists, consultants and campaign workers, among other specific criteria designed to rule out conflicts of interest. Once the main pool of applicants has been evaluated, the names would be divided into three pools:

  • 20 who are registered with the largest political party

  • 20 who are registered with the second largest political party

  • 20 who are not registered with either of those two parties.

In a public drawing, the Secretary of State would draw names from that pool until there are two from the largest political party, two from the second largest party and three who are not registered with either.

These seven commissioners will then review the remaining applicants and vote for the four remaining members: one from the largest political party, one from the second largest party and two who are not registered with either. You can see how non- affiliated voters, through the inclusion of members not a member of either of two of the largest parties, would be represented, along with other smaller parties.

Most other states use the Legislative Model, like Oregon. Nearly all, including in Oregon, have partisan and racial gerrymanders that don’t uphold everybody’s right to be fairly represented and have their voices heard. A great resource on all things gerrymandering in the U.S. can be found here.

What can you do?

The best action you can take to support this independent commission plan is to call and write to your state legislator to tell that person you want him or her to support it.  On the Oregon Legislature’s website, there is a way to look up who represents you using your address and how to contact that person: Once a bill number is assigned to this plan, you can continue to push for your legislator’s support of it and even submit testimony in support. If it comes to an initiative petition, the effort will need signatures and volunteers.

Other plans

There are at least two bills already introduced by Republicans in this session with their own versions of a redistricting commission, one somewhat similar to the one detailed here and one that is partisan. There is also an initiative petition filed with the Secretary of State that would establish a redistricting commission appointed by county commissioners and is seen as a way to give greater voice to rural Oregonians, but it is still a partisan process.

The key to drawing fair voting boundaries is instituting the most transparent, public and multipartisan process, where neutrality and public participation are the main goal. Oregon can lead the way in a country where many have come to find their votes are wasted thanks to politics ruling the line-drawing process.

Megan Rutherford is a community organizer and League of Women Voters of Washington County steering committee member.

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