Oregonian Editorial Board | November 17, 2019

A proposed ballot initiative seeking to change how Oregon draws boundaries for legislative and congressional districts doesn’t sound like much of a barn burner. Filed last week by a group of good-government advocates, the proposal runs 12 pages long with the kind of procedural detail that only a true policy wonk will enjoy.

But Oregonians should give the initiative their full attention as well as their signature once sponsors secure approval to start collecting them. While there’s still much to unpack about the proposal, the central premise of giving a citizen commission ­­­– not elected officials – the authority to redraw districts is a powerful one that could reshape Oregon politics and deserves widespread debate.

Under Oregon law, the Legislature is responsible for updating the geographic boundaries of legislative and congressional districts across the state after each census, with the next revamp slated for 2021. If the Legislature fails to pass a redistricting plan, the responsibility falls to the secretary of state.

That hasn’t been very successful to date, with the Legislature passing a redistricting map only twice in 100 years, chief sponsor Norman Turrill told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board. But the high failure rate is only a symptom of bigger problems baked into this system.

There’s an inherent conflict of interest in asking elected officials to divvy up voters in a way that doesn’t favor their own re-election or party, as state law requires. Boundaries have carved up Clackamas, Salem and Eugene into multiple “oddly-shaped” districts that appear to serve the interests of incumbents as opposed to the public, as the petition states. All 90 state legislators are either a Democrat or a Republican, even though 40 percent of registered voters are neither. And with Oregon likely to gain a sixth seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, independent, nonpartisan districting is even more critical to ensure all Oregonians have a fair say in who they send to Congress.

Oregon’s “People, not Politicians” proposal, modeled closely off the California system adopted by voters in 2008, is intriguing for many reasons. The 12-person commission, selected through a neutral process, would include four Democrats, four Republicans and four others who are not registered with either of the two major parties ­– finally giving third-party and non-affiliated voters a guaranteed seat at the table. It explicitly prohibits elected officials and those who plan to seek election from the pool of potential commission candidates. And it emphasizes such objectives as heightening a district’s competitiveness and keeping communities that share geographic, social and economic interests together in guiding redrawing efforts.

We’ve already seen how the state’s two major political parties lock out non-affiliated or third-party voters. Earlier this year, the House passed a bill that would have imposed campaign finance limits on individuals and corporations ­– but would have protected the Democratic and Republican parties’ rights to give as much as they wanted to. Both parties allow only those who register as party members to vote in their primaries, typically ensuring that the most partisan candidates advance to the general election when the rest of Oregon voters can weigh in.

The redistricting proposal’s broad array of backers, including the League of Women Voters (of which Turrill is past president), the Independent Party of Oregon, the Oregon Progressive Party, Taxpayer Association of Oregon and Oregon Farm Bureau reflect a shared view across the spectrum that today’s system serves the two major parties – not the public.

There are still some unknowns. For example, because citizens on the committee would not be elected, voters can’t hold them accountable in the sense that they could elect someone else in their place. But voting from gerrymandered districts doesn’t provide a genuine opportunity to hold an official accountable anyway. And in recent years, many states across the country, including Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Washington, have concluded that commissions help bring a fairness to redistricting that legislative-driven processes simply cannot.

Initiative sponsors must first secure an approved ballot title from the Oregon Department of Justice before collecting nearly 150,000 signatures to qualify the proposed constitutional amendment for the ballot. That feat will be much more challenging now that the Legislature pushed through Senate Bill 761, a cynical and power-hoarding piece of legislation that eviscerated a key signature gathering method for voter initiatives. It’s one more way that parties – in this case, the Democratic majority – protect themselves at the cost of the public. Voters should hear the pitch for changing redistricting from these good-government advocates and prepare to push for changes that put the public first.