It was an ugly way to get there. But last week’s agreement by House leaders to include an equal number of Republicans as Democrats on the redistricting committee was a surprisingly positive resolution of what threatened to devolve into a hopeless mess.
After weeks of resisting calls to do so, House Republicans are now waiving the constitutional requirement that the full text of bills be read before a House vote. The time-sucking tactic had significantly slowed passage of bills, much to Democrats’ frustration.
More significantly, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, has added House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, to the committee that sets legislative and congressional districts – a belated but beneficial move considering that a plan developed by equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans has far more legitimacy than one presented by an imbalanced committee. While such power-sharing may seem a recipe for gridlock, the only time the Legislature successfully met its redistricting responsibilities in the past century was 2011, when both House and Senate committees had equal representation.
And in the case of redistricting, in which lawmakers are determining the geographical boundaries that shape Oregonians’ political representation for the next 10 years, the Legislature must assure voters of the integrity and fairness of the process.
That said, the jockeying for equal membership on such a critical committee shows that voters have reason to be wary. It also doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome; if lawmakers fail to reach a plan, legislative redistricting responsibilities will go to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat. Rather, this all provides another argument why politicians aren’t the best people to be handling this responsibility. Several states, including California and Washington, have already reassigned redistricting authority from politicians to independent citizen commissions with guidelines for including members of the public from across the political spectrum. Considering that nearly 1 million Oregonians are unaffiliated with any political party – numbering almost as many registered Democrats and more than the state’s Republicans – the state should take pains to reflect the interests of those who don’t identify as an R or a D.
Unfortunately, just like Oregon’s refusal to broaden voter participation in primary elections, our state continues to lag its neighbors on adopting an independent commission, consistently choosing to empower established political parties over the voices of individuals.
This year could have been different. A coalition of good-government groups had sought to put an initiative before Oregonians last year, but fell short of signature-gathering requirements due to the pandemic. Although a federal judge initially cleared the way for the “People not Politicians” initiative to move forward despite the shortfall, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum appealed the decision and secured an injunction that kept the initiative off the November ballot.
Norman Turrill, chair of the People Not Politicians coalition and the former head of League of Women Voters of Portland, told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that the group’s advocacy will continue. The coalition is waiting to see whether the Legislature takes up House Joint Resolution 7, sponsored by Drazan, which largely adopts the initiative that Turrill’s group sought to put before voters. Unfortunately, that bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.
Legislators should recognize the precariousness of the situation we are in with epic levels of mistrust in government and with false information circulating more easily than truth. They face challenging deadlines to complete a redistricting plan due to delayed census information, making it even more important to act with meticulous transparency and involve the public. Setting up and incorporating an independent commission as much as possible to help develop a redistricting plan can build trust.
But finally, lawmakers should understand that it’s only a matter of time before Oregonians adopt the same kind of innovations that their neighbors have already embraced. As leaders, they should show they are committed to Oregon’s future, rather than their own, and lead the way to change.