By Jeff Mapes | OPB
November 12, 2019

Oregon voters may be asked next year to take the redrawing of congressional and legislative boundaries out of the hands of elected politicians.

A coalition that includes a wide variety of political and government watchdog groups on Tuesday say they are filing three proposed initiatives that would create a nonpartisan citizens panel to handle redistricting for congressional and legislative seats in Oregon following the 2020 census.

Norman Turrill, an Oregon League of Women Voters official and a chief sponsor of the measures, said that legislators shouldn’t control a process that can play an important role in determining who wins elections.

“The Legislature has a conflict of interest in the process,” Turrill said, “and they would be tempted to bias the results to favor one party or another.”

In addition to the League of Women Voters, the coalition backing the bill includes Common Cause of Oregon, OSPIRG, the Independent Party of Oregon, the Oregon Progressive Party, the Oregon Farm Bureau and the Taxpayer Association of Oregon.

However, the coalition could run into opposition from groups aligned with the Democratic legislative majority, which now controls redistricting in Oregon.

One warning signal came from Our Oregon, a Portland-based group that coordinates political activity among labor unions, social justice groups, environmentalists and other left-of-center organizations.

Becca Uherbelau, Our Oregon’s executive director, said she was concerned that the proposed 12-member citizens commission would be less accountable to voters and not reflect the concerns of the most under-represented voters.

“Right now,” she said, “it looks like a cookie-cutter solution in search of a problem.”

The proposed measure follows the basic approach adopted by California voters in 2010. The Oregon proposal calls for the commission to be equally divided among registered Democrats, Republicans and those who don’t belong to either of those parties. A panel of three state administrative law judges would winnow down a list of applicants to include a pool of 150 people. Out of that pool, six commissioners would be randomly selected — and those six would in turn choose the remaining six from the judge-selected applicants.

The measure also would prohibit major elected officials and their aides, political party officials, major political donors and lobbyists from serving on the commission.

Turrill argued that this is a better approach than was adopted in the state of Washington, which created its redistricting commission in the 1980s. In Washington, the members of the commission are chosen by legislative leaders of both parties. Turrill called it a “bipartisan gerrymandering commission” that sets up a system of horse-trading between the Democratic and Republican parties.

“I think the people who oppose this [Oregon measure] are people who benefit from the current process,” he said.

That may be why many of the early backers of the measure come from the Republican side of the spectrum, which has steadily lost political power in Oregon.

In addition to Turrill, the other chief sponsor is Sharon Waterman, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, which typically backs Republicans for major office.

Kevin Mannix, a former state Republican chairman and the party’s 2002 nominee for governor, authored his own initiative to create an independent redistricting commission. But his measure ran into criticism that its selection process gave disproportionate power to rural areas. He withdrew the measure last month and said Tuesday that he backs the new set of measures.

“It accomplishes the ultimate goal of having some independent-minded voters draw the legislative lines,” he said.

Turrill said the group is filing three different measures because of concerns about the requirement that each measure only deal with one subject. One measure filed Tuesday calls for this new commission to draw both congressional and legislative lines. But Turrill said the group will also file two separate measures Wednesday for congressional and legislative boundaries in case it runs into legal barriers trying to include both in the same initiative.

In any case, each initiative is a proposed constitutional amendment that requires 149,360 valid signatures from registered voters by next July to qualify for the November 2020 ballot.

If successful, any of the redistricting measures would take effect for the boundary changes following the 2020 census. That could be a particularly important redistricting cycle for Oregon since the state is expected to pick up a sixth congressional district. The state is now represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by four Democrats and one Republican.