By Connor Radnovich| The Statesman Journal | October 2, 2021
In the waning hours of last week’s special legislative session on redistricting, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle declared this should be the last time elected representatives are responsible for drawing these maps.
The session was defined by partisan controversy: House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, changed the makeup of a redistricting committee to favor Democrats, sparking a House Republican boycott, and the congressional map itself skewed Democratic, according to independent analyses.
The top alternative is an independent redistricting commission, where members of the public are selected to draw new congressional and legislative district maps once per decade after the new census.
Experts and political analysts warn such commissions aren’t guaranteed to result in fairer maps and could be difficult to establish in Oregon.
Those who oppose a redistricting commission say commissioners would not be accountable to the people, nor would they be as representative of the state as the 90-member legislative body.
But those who support a commission say this past session just further demonstrated why the state needs to have a new system.
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said redistricting fights and the perceived or actual partisan bias of the maps damage the public’s trust in the state’s political systems.
“The events of the last week add to a mounting pile of evidence that we should not be creating the districts in which we and our allies and friends might be running in the future,” he said.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, called on Oregonians to vote in support of the creation of an independent redistricting commission should the measure make it to the ballot.
“Oregonians will only get the fair maps they deserve, free of partisan influence, by supporting an independent redistricting commission in the next election,” Drazan said. “Politicians should not be drawing their own political lines.”
Independent analyses of the newly drawn congressional districts indicate two are safe Democrat seats, one is a safe Republican seat, two lean Democrat and one is a relative toss-up.
However, that toss-up (Congressional District 5) contains the city of Bend, which has shifted left in recent decades and is growing rapidly, meaning the district could soon turn into a safe Democratic seat.
Oregon political analyst Jim Moore said that based on voter registration and trends, Democrats “should win four of the six seats” for the state to have a fair congressional delegation, but not five.
Even so, that doesn’t mean a court challenge will prove successful.
“Showing that it’s intentional and violates Oregon law is going to be really tough to do,” Moore said.
Oregon has tended to find itself on the cutting edge of elections innovations — from vote-by-mail to automatic voter registration. Moore said lawmakers have not been as eager on this issue.
Fourteen other states have taken the responsibility of redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers and given it to a commission.
So while Moore said there is “zero chance” of a bill passing the Legislature to create an independent redistricting commission, getting it on the ballot via an initiative petition could also prove difficult.
“We’ve seen it time and time again: the voters have a very short attention span on this,” Moore said.
Coalition trying to get issue on ballot
The current effort to bring an independent redistricting commission to the state is being led by People Not Politicians, a coalition which includes the Oregon Farm Bureau, League of Women Voters, Eugene-Springfield NAACP and Independent Party of Oregon.
Initiative Petition 34 would create a Citizens Redistricting Commission with 12 members, six selected at random from an applicant pool and those selecting an additional six. Membership would be split evenly between Democrats, Republicans and nonaffiliated voters.
People Not Politicians Chair Norman Turrill said the most important thing the commission would do is take redistricting out of the partisan arena.
“Every legislator has a conflict of interest in the outcome, whether they admit it or not,” he said, noting the commission would be made up of “normal citizens instead of people who would have an interest in the outcome.”
He said the commission would also better represent nonaffiliated voters, who make up the second largest block of registered voters in the state.
As of August, Republicans made up 25% of registered voters, while Democrats constituted 35%. Nonaffiliated voters were 33%.
People Not Politicians undertook a similar initiative effort in 2020 with IP 57, but the coronavirus pandemic made signature-gathering difficult.
Petitioners were not able to gather the required number of signatures to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot and were conclusively kept off the ballot when the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the State of Oregon and did not allow a reduction in the number of needed signatures.
“There was lots of support,” Turrill said. “The whole political spectrum is supportive of it, outside of the people who are directly involved in the process.
Independent group wouldn’t be ‘totally objective’
Those opposed to the idea of an independent redistricting commission include Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who pushed back against the very notion of an independent commission.
“I don’t see these commissions as being totally objective, totally fair, no politics. That’s a myth,” Courtney said. “Politics is involved in everything in life.”
He said redistricting commissions are not accountable to the public is the same way the legislative body is, since a lawmaker could face a recall or primary challenge for decisions they make.
Nor, Courtney said, could a 12-member commission be as representative of all corners of the state as the Legislature’s 90 members.
Moreover, if this year’s maps are not changed by the courts, it would be the second straight redistricting cycle the Legislature has passed maps, which Courtney said shows the system works.
Opponents point out that, if they do avoid a successful court challenge, it would only be the third time in the past century maps came out of the Legislature unchanged.
Courtney acknowledged the process this year wasn’t as efficient or drama-free as it could have been, but the Legislature still achieved its goal in drawing and passing maps that, he said, abide by the laws that guide redistricting.
“The product we came up with, I don’t think you can fault it,” he said. “I don’t think (a commission) could do any better a job or a fairer job than we could.”
Benjamin Schneer, assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, has presented research that concludes there are many factors which influence maps that independent commissions might not be able to overcome.
These include the inherent characteristics of a population, such as likeminded people clustering in certain geographic areas. But these commissions could also increase competitiveness of various races.
“Independent commissions are, generally speaking, likely to produce fairer maps overall compared to a partisan process through the state legislature,” Schneer said, “but, of course, an independent commission does not guarantee a fair map, nor remove partisan politics from the redistricting process.”