The Oregon Legislature's recent special session — featuring House Speaker Tina Kotek's broken promise, yet another Republican walkout and overall partisan acrimony — should motivate people to find a better way to draw political boundaries in this state.
Fortunately, just such a proposal may appear on the November 2022 ballot. Approval of an independent redistricting commission would be a small step toward making Oregon a place where good-government policies are valued in their own right, without regard for who gains short-term political advantage.
Very few advocates for good government were in sight when the Legislature convened last month to vote on redistricting following the 2020 Census. Raw political power outweighed consideration of what's best for Oregon as lawmakers decided where lines would be drawn for their own House and Senate seats, as well as for Oregon's expanded number of congressional districts. Kotek made a deal during the earlier, regular 2021 session to provide House Republicans with 3-to-3 partisan parity on redistricting committees. In return, the GOP stopped using parliamentaryÂ tactics to slow votingÂ on Democratic legislation.
But when the special session rolled around in September, Kotek accused committee Republicans of negotiating in bad faith and reneged on the agreement.
Then came the walkout, an eventual return to business and a controversial redistricting deal. The Democrats' map has been signed by Gov. Kate Brown, and still must survive a court challenge.
If it stands, though, the political dominance of Oregon's urban areas will grow larger. At the congressional level, where Oregon is gaining a coveted sixth seat, there's now the possibility — although not a certainty — of having five Democratic congressional representatives and one Republican. But this is a state that's split far more evenly than that. In statewide contests, Republicans routinely receive well more than 40% of the vote. Occasionally, they even prevail. Yet, congressional representation could end up being 83% Democrat. And to boot, the new boundaries would give the Portland area a piece of four of the six districts.
Yes, it's true that gerrymandering has gone the opposite direction in places like Texas and North Carolina, where GOP-controlled legislatures give every advantage to their party's candidates. They, too, make sure they maintain their legislative majorities and tip the scales in congressional races.
But saying other people are doing it is a childish response. And did any of the Democratic legislators in charge of the redistricting process consider that it might actually be in Oregon's best interest, if Congress flips to Republican control in 2023, to have at least two members in what would then be the majority party?
To be clear, we aren't advocating for either party to gain an edge. We have no doubt Republicans would have done the same in Oregon if they had the power.
And that's exactly why this process must be removed from the Legislature's control. Initiative Petition 16 would accomplish that goal. If the petition attracts a sufficient number of signatures from registered voters, it will become a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2022 ballot. If approved, it would put the redistricting process into the hands of a 12-member independent citizens' redistricting commission. The commission would consist of four Democrats, four Republicans and four others who are third party members or non-affiliated voters. They would redo the Legislature's work and redraw district lines in 2024. As the petition backers point out, third-party and non-affiliated voters are now the largest sector of registered voters in Oregon — about 40% of the total.
This is not a novel concept. Twenty-one states have some form of a redistricting commission that attempts to take partisanship out of a most basic function of our democracy. It shouldn't be up to incumbent politicians to decide who gets to vote for them.
The backers of IP 16 are not partisans, but include groups with a long history of supporting sound government policies. Among them are Common Cause Oregon, the League of Women Voters of Oregon, the NAACP, the Oregon Farm Bureau, OSPIRG and AAUW of Oregon.
There are other ways, as well, to improve the tone and function of Oregon politics. The job of secretary of state, who would have drawn maps for the new districts if the Legislature failed to do the job, ought to become a nonpartisan office. And Oregon's antiquated closed primary system should be opened to nonaffiliated voters so that more moderate candidates have a chance to advance to the general election.
But reform comes incrementally, and IP 16 is an appropriate place to start. Registered voters should be open to signing the petition and potentially approving the measure next year. It's not too late to put fairness back into a redistricting process that normally occurs only once a decade.
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