The Fulcrum | By David Hawkings | November 20, 2019
There are rumblings in two of the nation’s most reliably blue states about taking partisan politics out of the business of drawing legislative boundaries for the coming decade. And some of the Democrats in power sound ready to go along.
Discussions are in their early stages in both Oregon and Illinois, but a sustained drive to end partisan gerrymandering in either place would be one of the bigger stories of the coming year in the world of democracy reform.
Big changes in the rules of redistricting could also affect the balancing of power on Capitol Hill, in Salem and in Springfield when new maps get drawn after the next census — although a long run of election results suggest the Democratic dominance in both states will not be readily threatened.
The drive to take away line-drawing powers from politicians is much farther along in Oregon. Last week advocates filed papers starting the process of getting a referendum on next November’s ballot that would turn the cartography over to a commission of a dozen ordinary citizens: four Democrats, four Republicans and four who identify with a third party or as independents.
The next step is to gather more than 150,000 signatures on petitions. The organizer of the effort is People Not Politicians, which was born to push the successful 2018 ballot initiative creating a similar independent redistricting panel in Republican-run Michigan.
The proposal has already drawn an unusual range of backers, from Common Cause and the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group on the left to the Farm Bureau and the Taxpayer Association of Oregon on the right. Also endorsing the effort are local chapters of the NAACP, the American Association of University Women and the League of Women Voters.
“Farmers do not get to choose their weather. Politicians should not choose their voters,” the Oregon Farm Bureau said in a statement to the East Oregonian.
A spokeswoman for state Democrats, Molly Woon, said the party would not take a position on the ballot measure until at least next year, but may still be neutral after that.
The gerrymandering measure would become the second significant democracy reform proposal on the Oregon ballot in 2020, joining a state constitutional amendment to explicitly allow campaign finance limits.
At the Illinois capital, meanwhile, legislators in both parties have been in discussion in recent days about ways they could combat the public’s perception of a culture of corruption in state government. And turning over redistricting to an outside group has secured some bipartisan interest, spurred on by the advocacy group Change Illinois, which says the state “is a leading example of the harm that gerrymandering does to our democracy.”
“I think we do need to amend our constitution and relinquish the political control that lawmakers have over redistricting,” GOP state Sen. Jason Barickman told the Alton Telegraph.
“I really want to see us do more work on how we change the culture here, so continue to do work in that arena,” added Democratic state Sen. Melinda Bush. “How do we look at those issues? How do we make sure that the people that we’re electing, that we’re getting good representation? So looking at fair maps.”
More than 500,000 voters signed a petition to get an independent redistricting commission proposal on the statewide ballot in 2016, but the referendum was killed through a legal challenge by Democrats. Now, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker is on record vowing “to make sure that here in Illinois we’re not gerrymandering, that we’re drawing maps that are fair and competitive.”
Democrats have controlled Oregon’s government for 11 of the past 13 years and now enjoy significant majorities in the Legislature. The party has held all levers of policymaking power in Illinois for 13 of the past 17 years and also has lopsided control of the General Assembly.
So if independent commissions take over, they will probably have their biggest impact on the power dynamic at the congressional level. Very limited population growth this decade means Illinois is nearly certain to lose one of its House seats, which now skew 13 to 5 for the Democrats, while Oregon’s growth means it will gain a seat in addition to the four now held by Democrats and one by a Republican.
The fight against partisan gerrymandering has intensified in both state courts and the drive for ballot initiatives since the Supreme Court ruled in June that federal courts have no place deciding when a party in power has drawn maps that go too far to perpetuate that power. But most of the action so far has been in the majority of states where Republicans were in charge of drawing this decade’s districts.
Fourteen states have now assigned the drawing of the next state legislative maps to independent commissions, while just nine will use such panels to set the congressional maps.