EDITORIAL: It's past time for independent redistricting
Like many Oregonians, we've taken great interest in the proposals for new legislative and congressional maps that have come out of Salem this month.
And we think our reaction mirrors that of many Oregonians as well: We don't like what we see.
It's as predictable as the sun rising: Democrats want to draw district lines that will shore up and perhaps expand their already-wide majorities, Republicans want to draw district lines that will give them a fighting chance at legislative control of a state where they haven't held more than one statewide office at a time in decades.
Both parties have some vulnerable incumbents, many of whom they propose to give more favorable districts less inclined to boot them from office at the next opportunity. Both parties have some members across the aisle to which they want to put the screws, drawing them out of their home districts or changing their district lines to give them a less approving electorate. And at the end of the day, both parties want to win as many districts as possible, whether they truly represent the will of Oregon's voters or not.
And what do we want?
For starters, we want to live in a small-d democratic state, with a small-r republican form of government, in which voters choose their representatives and not the other way around.
Partisans in power
It has always been a gross conflict of interest that legislators are able to vote on what their own districts will look like every decade. Mercifully, despite Oregon's long tradition of comity in Salem — something that has been in short supply in recent years — our Legislature has a pretty shoddy track record when it comes to redistricting. With the 2011 redistricting cycle as one of the few exceptions, the courts and/or secretary of state have had to take over redistricting almost every time.
It's unclear what will happen this time, after a special session gaveled in Monday, Sept. 20.
The Senate quickly adopted maps on party-line votes on Monday.
But in the House, Speaker Tina Kotek unilaterally blew up a power-sharing deal with Republicans in an attempt to force through a deeply one-sided Democratic gerrymander of Oregon's congressional districts, leading House Republicans to boycott the next morning's legislative session.
Then, on Tuesday, the House was shut down by a COVID-19 case. It's anyone guess as to what happens when floor proceedings resume — tentatively scheduled for Saturday, two days before a deadline set by the Oregon Supreme Court to finish the redistricting process.
Unfortunately, in Oregon, even when the Legislature fails to complete its redistricting duties, the responsibility still falls on partisan actors.
Secretary of State Shemia Fagan is a Democrat, and one who explicitly ran in 2020 on a platform of championing her party's progressive wing and appealing to labor interests — the same labor interests that frequently flood competitive races in Oregon with campaign contributions. She would be responsible for crafting and submitting legislative maps if the Legislature can't agree.
Drawing the congressional map would be a panel of judges appointed by Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters. While the Oregon Supreme Court is officially nonpartisan, Walters is a registered Democrat who was originally appointed by Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
Fagan has already been working to put together an advisory group to assist in redistricting, anticipating that the Legislature will not be able to do the job — something she pledged to do during her campaign. We hope, should this task fall to her, that despite Fagan's personal political leanings, she'll take input from all members of this "People's Commission" into account and produce legislative maps that are fair, reasonable, and drawn without allegiance to particular legislators or to benefit one political party.
As for the congressional redistricting panel, we hope Walters would appoint members based on their experience and fidelity to justice, not their fealty to a political party or their willingness to appease special interests. Voters from across the political spectrum have repeatedly given Walters their support to stay on the Oregon Supreme Court, and we hope to see that confidence is not misplaced simply because Walters herself prefers one political party over the others.
But even if redistricting this year ends up being genuinely nonpartisan, Oregonians should not take that to mean that the system is working as it should.
In 2011, with a closely divided Legislature, Democrats and Republicans put aside their parties' interests and worked together to draw maps in a bipartisan way. We lauded those efforts. But we also agree with points made by Republicans today like Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis of Albany — while those maps may have been drawn with the approval of both Democratic and Republican legislators, they still fell short of an acceptable standard because they were drawn to satisfy legislators, rather than with fairness and proportional representation as their overriding principles.
How redistricting shakes out in 2021 is yet to be determined. But we are tired of the political games that are played.
Particularly egregious are both parties' proposed congressional maps.
Republicans vacuum-pack Washington and Multnomah counties into two districts (excluding a tiny piece of tony Southwest Portland). That leaves Republicans likely favored in the remaining four districts — even though they haven't won a statewide federal election since 2002. That may reflect the will of Republicans frustrated that their margins in rural areas are routinely outweighed by Democrats' big wins in urban and suburban Oregon, but it results in a government that is not representative of Oregonians altogether.
In a proposed map with a much better chance of becoming law than Republicans' offer, Democrats put pieces of Portland into as practically many districts as they can. That gives them a strong chance to win five of six congressional districts — or 83% of Oregon's House delegation — in a state where President Donald Trump, despite his near-historic unpopularity as a Republican incumbent running for re-election, won more than 40% of the vote last year. That's not right, either.
Again: This is all as predictable as the sun rising. Legislators are inherently self-interested, and partisans are driven principally by the goal of garnering as much power as possible for their party.
A better way forward
It's past time that Oregon followed many other states in adopting an independent redistricting commission.
This solemn duty should no longer be entrusted to the Legislature, and the backstop to legislators squabbling and staking out extreme positions instead of coming together to compromise and set aside political agendas ought not be putting redistricting in the hands of a partisan secretary of state or a potentially skewed judicial panel.
Redistricting should be done by the people of Oregon — not elected officeholders, not lobbyists, not party hacks, but by you, or your neighbor down the street, or your old friend from high school, in concert with other regular Oregonians chosen at random for the task — and based on the laws of our state, not on party politics and special interests.
In essence, redistricting should be treated like jury duty — a serious matter for disinterested people to decide, rather than a once-in-a-decade opportunity for legislators to give themselves some added job security.
We applaud the efforts of the League of Women Voters and other advocacy groups that have pushed for changes to the way Oregon does its redistricting. We also applaud efforts, long-shot though they may be, by congressional Democrats to outlaw partisan gerrymandering at the federal level — even though we recognize that there is an element of self-interest there, given that Republicans control redistricting in considerably more states than Democrats do.
It's too late to change the way things work this year, so all we can do is hope for the best within the confines of an inherently flawed system. But whether Oregon conducts its elections under fair maps or political gerrymanders in 2022, we hope that this latest circus show in Salem provides the impetus for true redistricting reform — because voters should choose their representatives and not the other way around.
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