Guest View: Redistricting reform keeps the power with the people
By Eric Richardson | Register-Guard | February 16, 2020

The right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy. For generations, activists have fought first to gain that right and then to protect it — marching in our streets, organizing our communities and running and getting elected to the halls of power.

We understand that the right to vote is more than just the ability to cast a ballot. When the outcomes of elections are foregone conclusions because politicians have chosen their voters, rather than the other way around, our right to vote doesn’t mean nearly as much.

That’s why we are supporting a series of ballot measures that would change the way state legislative and congressional districts are drawn in Oregon and put the power where it belongs: with Oregon voters.

According to Oregon law, state legislators are responsible for drawing the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts after each census to adjust for population changes. Because it looks likely that Oregon will gain a sixth congressional district following the 2020 Census, it is even more important that the process for drawing districts is fair, transparent and driven by everyday Oregonians.

The ballot measures would take redistricting out of the hands of politicians by creating an independent, multi-partisan redistricting commission to draw congressional and legislative lines. Commissioners would be everyday Oregonians, elected or appointed officials, political party leaders, lobbyists, major donors or their close family members would be prohibited from serving on the commission. The commission would be required to follow strict mapmaking criteria that prioritizes ensuring that racial or language groups have equal opportunities to elect the candidates of their choice and protecting communities of interest. Final maps would have to be approved by a multi-partisan majority of commissioners in order to ensure that no one party can gerrymander.

Importantly, the commission would be required to hold multiple public hearings across the state to gather information about the communities where Oregonians live, accept public comment and testimony and explain their decisions in a final report where they must respond directly to public input. This is to ensure that the hearings are meaningful and that the commission actually takes into account the input of Oregonians.

When people think of Oregon, they do not generally associate it with gerrymandering. And that’s fair. Compared to some states, Oregon’s districts aren’t terrible. But this reform is about more than fixing strangely shaped districts. It’s about putting people — not politicians — in charge of the process of drawing districts. And it’s about ensuring that communities are protected and that all voters have an equal opportunity to elect someone who shares their lived experiences.

In having conversations about this reform with friends and allies, I am often asked why I am choosing to spend my time working on this rather than focusing on other, equally important issues, especially in a blue state like Oregon.

First, redistricting is driven by who is at the table. When legislators draw the maps, communities of color and legislators of color are often the ones traded away.

Second, I would have little hesitation in backing this reform in a state like Alabama or Mississippi — why should the fact that the Oregon Legislature is majority Democrat have any bearing on whether the reform makes sense?

Redistricting reform isn’t about building or breaking down power for Republicans or Democrats. It’s about ensuring that we the people have the power. That’s why an independent redistricting commission makes sense for Oregon.

Eric Richardson is the executive director of the Eugene/Springfield NAACP. He lives in Eugene.