Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938.

Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

A coalition of Oregonians wants to take the state’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process out of the hands of lawmakers they say are too biased to complete the job in a way that puts constituents first.

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For the second straight general election cycle, the People Not Politicians campaign is launching an initiative petition to put the question before Oregon voters: Would you prefer to see legislative and Congressional maps drawn by an independent commission made up of everyday Oregonians?

It’s a proposal the state has seen before, but the backers of this year’s initiative hope that the dysfunction lawmakers displayed in Salem last month will bring renewed interest in exploring a different option.

The idea is to create a 12-member panel of people from across the political spectrum. The plan would include four Democrats, four Republicans and four third-party or unaffiliated voters.

To apply, one would need to meet certain criteria such as being a registered voter in Oregon, not holding an elected or appointed office, and not being a lobbyist. The commission would seek to be representative of the state’s gender, racial, ethnic and geographic diversity.

The independent group would be charged with following state law and meeting certain criteria to be transparent and objective when drawing new political lines, a process that takes place every 10 years after the latest U.S. Census. If members of the commission are unable to agree on new districts, the process would fall to the Oregon Supreme Court.

If the initiative gathers enough support to get on the November 2022 ballot and is subsequently approved by voters, proponents would aim to have the commission redraw maps within the following two years for an interim redistricting effort. That would mean the maps lawmakers just finished drawing could potentially only stand for two to three years at the most.

The latest political fight

Oregonians who paid attention to the recent redistricting effort that played out in Salem know that the current process is far from perfect.

Mired in political controversy from the start, Democrats in control of both legislative chambers battled with Republicans until the 11th hour to get their maps approved.

In the last 110 years, lawmakers have only managed to pass maps that were not challenged in court or vetoed twice.

This year, Republicans felt the Democrats proposals were heavy-handed in favoring not only creating more solidly blue districts, but also of protecting incumbents. Democrats say that’s not the case, citing Oregon law as their guiding principles by which they drew “fair and representative” new state and federal districts.

But the special session called to complete the process got off to a rocky start last month when House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat, pulled back from a deal to share power with Republicans on a crucial redistricting committee.

A positive COVID-19 case in the Capitol forced a delay just two days into what was expected to be a single-week session. After a three-day pause, Republicans refused to show up after being called back to Salem on a Saturday morning, boycotting the maps Democrats were attempting to push through.

The boycott led to a compromise of sorts on a new Congressional map which made slight concessions in redrawing a few districts that were not as deeply Democratic as the previous iteration. Republicans showed up the following Monday, raised their concerns on the House floor, but inevitably granted the two-thirds quorum allowing a vote to take place and for the maps to pass.

The result was a legislative map that will likely continue Democratic dominance in Salem, and a Congressional map that will probably lead to a 5-1 split in Oregon’s U.S. House seats. Oregon received one additional House seat because of the most recent U.S. Census, and that district could be a political toss up.

“At the end of the day this is the same outcome, maybe just a little more dressed up than the previous blatantly gerrymandered map,” said Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany.

Lasting enmity

The political fallout of a broken deal between Kotek and Republican House Leader Christine Drazan could have lasting effects on the institution; it could spell even deeper division between two sides whose agendas in recent years have rarely overlapped.

Norman Turrill, a Portland resident and longtime volunteer with the League of Women Voters, is the chief petitioner behind the initiative, which was refiled with Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan’s office at the end of September.

Turrill and his camp are currently gathering the 1,000 sponsorship signatures needed to gain a new draft ballot title — a short, official explanation of the initiative’s purpose — from Fagan’s office.

Once those initial signatures are gathered and verified, the campaign will then need to gather 149,360 signatures, or 8% of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. If those

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Turill said he’s continuing to push for an independent redistricting commission because he feels legislators have inherent bias when it comes to drawing maps.

“They have a built-in conflict of interest, either about their own districts or about their political party,” Turrill said. “We don’t even think that the legislature is entirely representative of voters. Voters now are 40% not Republican or Democrat.”

Jack Miller is a political science professor at Portland State University.

According to Miller, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when either party is in control of the legislature — whether that’s in Oregon or elsewhere — they will use that advantage to preserve their control.

“I don’t expect the Oregon Democratic Party not to make use of the process as it exists to benefit the Democratic Party,” Miller told OPB back in August. “And the Republicans don’t either. If they were in the majority, they would do the same thing, and they know it.”

Miller said he supported the People Not Politicians campaign’s effort to get the initiative on the November 2020 ballot. That effort failed to gather the requisite 150,000 signatures in time.

The group filed a federal lawsuit saying they faced severe restrictions in getting the needed signatures because the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of many events and businesses, in turn violating proponents rights to engage in the political process.

A U.S. District Court judge agreed and set a lower threshold of 58,789 signatures, which the group was able to meet, but the U.S. Supreme Court stayed that order and the clock ran out on their effort.

Now Turrill and the People Not Politicians campaign will try to put the question before Oregonians again, this time with a head of steam fueled by political turmoil in Salem — prompting many observers to wonder whether there’s a better way.

The idea isn’t new by any means. At least seven states — including California and Washington — have already passed laws implementing similar commissions with varying numbers of non-politician members to handle redistricting.

But Democrats who led the process in Oregon this year say that there are also flaws in allowing an independent commission take over.

Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, served as co-chair, and eventually chair, of the House redistricting committee. She said she doubts how “independent” any commission convened to complete the redistricting procedure could actually be.

“I don’t believe anybody could come to this table without a bias one way or another,” she said. “California set up this commission, it’s this huge bureaucracy where even they are at an impasse. So is Washington and Michigan.”

Salinas also said she worries about what the applicant pool might look like and whether that would truly reflect the diversity of Oregon’s communities. Also that the long hours and arduous schedule could prevent certain Oregonians from taking advantage of this civic opportunity, leading to a very select group participating in the process.

“Those people wouldn’t be accountable to anyone,” Salinas said. “Legislators actually have to go back to their districts.”

Turrill disagrees, saying that by placing the process in the hands of ordinary people with no direct stake in the outcome will result in the commission being able to more readily agree with each other.

Turrill also said he has no fear that Oregon would have a lack of applicants from across the spectrums of political ideology, economic class, sexual orientation, race and any other demographic factors.

More than 760 Oregonians applied to join an advisory commission Fagan was putting together in preparation should the legislature have failed in passing new maps. If that had happened, responsibility for drawing new legislative maps would have fallen to her.

Turrill said that, given the chance, Oregonians will jump at the opportunity to vote for this initiative and to participate in its formation.

“I’m fairly confident that once it’s on the ballot, Oregon voters will readily agree to it seeing what’s happening in the legislature,” he said.

Republican lawmakers have also shown support for the idea recently.

Drazan actually put forth her own version of an independent redistricting commission — House Joint Resolution 7 —earlier this year during the regular legislative session.

HJR 7 would have referred to voters a proposed amendment to Oregon’s constitution establishing a citizens redistricting commission. The measure was never considered and remained in committee when the legislature adjourned at the end of June.

“I know that my interest when I took a look at (a redistricting commission) as an option here in Oregon, it is intended to take this really important process of defining these political maps out of the hands of those in power, and take it away from the people directly impacted by these decisions,” Drazan said. “What the public needs, what they deserve, is to have political lines drawn in a way that serves them.”

According to Turrill, the People Not Politicians campaign expects to gather and submit their initial 1,000 sponsorship signatures within the coming week so they can receive a draft ballot title and begin the work of gathering support for their proposal once again.

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