The Oregonian | OregonLive
April 7, 2019
By Kate Titus
Titus is executive director of Common Cause Oregon, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization.
If there is one thing Oregonians can agree on, it is that our vote should count. We lead the nation in registering voters automatically and our vote-by-mail system produces voter turnout that outpaces other states.
Why then do we allow our votes to be silenced? Both Democratic and Republican legislators in Oregon and across the country have proven themselves incapable of putting the voters’ interests ahead of their own when they draw congressional and legislative maps.
The practice, known as gerrymandering, is as old as the Republic, but looks very different in our data-driven digital age. Partisan map-makers use scientific data to pack supporters of the opposing party into as few districts as possible to limit their clout or spread them over several districts to dilute their power. Sometimes legislators from opposing parties even work together – in what’s known as a bipartisan gerrymander – divvying up districts, making them “safe” for one party or the other, but leaving many voters with little chance of meaningful competition or choice.
Oregon legislators aren’t the worst gerrymanderers in the country, but there is evidence of an imbalance. Oregon Democrats hold four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to one for the Republicans, which equates to winning 80 percent of the congressional seats with 58 percent of the vote.
All in all, 17 states impose greater checks and balances on redistricting, including seven states that empower citizen commissions to draw congressional maps. But Oregon puts the foxes in charge of the henhouse. We can do better.
Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, has proposed a bill this legislative session that provides a good starting point for state redistricting reform. Senate Joint Resolution 11 would empower an independent citizen commission to draw the lines. The commissioners would be ordinary voters, with no conflicts of interest and equal representation for political parties and independents. Map-makers would take testimony from people across the state and draw lines guided by community interest and not the interests of any party or candidate. The bill, which proposes a constitutional amendment, should advance and go to voters in November 2020.
To be sure, politicians will not give up the power to gerrymander without a fight. And we may see a range of reform proposals – some stronger than others. A redistricting proposal that strips the power from state legislators, only to hand it to county politicians for example, does not solve the problem. We need true reform that puts power in the hands of citizens, removes conflicts of interest, and ensures full transparency.
But here’s some good news. Even as we must work locally for reform, the U.S. Supreme Court could soon help.
Last month, the court heard oral arguments against two egregious cases of gerrymandering, one benefiting Republicans in North Carolina, the other giving advantage to Democrats in Maryland.
In Rucho v. Common Cause, my nonpartisan watchdog organization argued that North Carolina Republicans violated the Constitutional rights of Democrats through an extreme partisan gerrymander that gave the GOP a 10-3 advantage in House seats despite earning just over half of the votes. In Lamone v. Benisek, which was originated by a Common Cause member, plaintiffs argued that Maryland Democrats violated the First Amendment rights of Republicans when they redrew a congressional district to flip it from red to blue.
Many legal observers came away from the arguments optimistic that the justices agreed these were the best test cases to end partisan gerrymandering. Every justice on the court, conservative and liberal alike, started from the place that partisan gerrymandering is a real problem for our democracy and asked questions demonstrating their interest in discussing what a national standard could look like.
By June, we hope the high court will strike down gerrymandering and declare the practice illegal and unconstitutional nationwide. Oregon would still be wise to require a transparent citizen-driven mapping process. A definitive Supreme Court decision will accelerate Oregon’s people-powered movement and provide the legal backing a citizen commission needs to enforce impartial maps.
Now is the time to unrig system. In our country’s history, there has never been a moment in which the U.S. Supreme Court appeared closer to stopping gerrymandering. The justices must finally recognize that only their action can prevent highly scientific gerrymanders from depriving all Americans of fundamental democratic rights.
Oregonians can bring their spirit of reform to redistricting and hold elected officials accountable on Election Day. A definitive decision by the high court would provide strong legal backing. A transparent citizen-driven commission would provide the process. Our voters should pick their politicians, not the other way around.