Are Oregon political districts gerrymandered?
After Republicans turned a slew of state legislatures from blue to red in the 2010 midterm elections, subsequently redrew Congressional districts in politically advantageous shapes and sparked a national conversation around political gerrymandering, states including Colorado, Michigan and Missouri recently passed initiatives to depoliticize the redistricting process.
Will Oregon be next in line? The Oregon League of Women Voters certainly hopes so.
The League hosted a forum Wednesday, Dec. 6 at Wilsonville Public Library and outlined an alternative to Oregon's redistricting process. Meanwhile, Wilsonville residents who attended the meeting provided thoughts on redistricting and the League's proposal.
As League representative Candalynn Johnson explained at the meeting, districts are redrawn after the national census is conducted at the beginning of each decade and redistricting affects representation in Congress and the state legislature.
In the vast majority of states including Oregon, the state legislature decides how district lines are drawn. According to the League, politicians drawing their own districts creates an inherent conflict of interest and leads to political gerrymandering — which is the practice of manipulating district boundaries for partisan advantage.
"When legislatures have control over where lines get drawn the risk of gerrymandering increases," Johnson said.
Oregon is not said to be one of the most gerrymandered states in the United States. But according to an interactive map produced by the FiveThirtyEight data driven media outlet, Democrats — who controlled the State Senate and had 30 of 60 seats in the State House of Representatives when redistricting was passed in 2011 — have a comparative advantage to Republicans based on the current map.
Instead of the state legislature, the League proposed that a paid multi-partisan commission should draw district lines. In their proposal, 11 people with diverse political views would be drawn out of a pool of 60 by the secretary of state and appointed to the commission. The League hopes to garner enough support to put the initiative through the Legislature or up for a ballot measure.
Wilsonville resident Cathryn Poff has noticed politicians attempting to circumvent the democratic process to achieve political gain and was in favor of the League's proposal.
"This proposal seems very thought through with a good foundation. I'm hoping something like this can advance and get it through to keep things as equitable as we can make it," Poff said.
"I know gerrymandering districts for parties has been a problem," Wilsonville resident Farol Kahle said. "The system they are proposing sounds very good to me, more fair."
House District 26 representative-elect and Wilsonville resident Courtney Neron attended the meeting and said she would support taking redistricting powers out of the Legislature's control.
"I'm all for a fair process," she said. "I would rather it truly represent the people with a fair process than be finangled."
Under the current system, Poff and Wilsonville resident Marge Easley worried that Democrats could use a potential advantage in the state legislature to gerrymander districts when redistricting takes place in 2021. Democrats earned a legislative supermajority in the November election.
"I think that's (Democrats using majority to their advantage) a likely outcome," said Easley, who helped organize the meeting as a member of the League. "The League is nonpartisan. We want the system to be fair to everyone and we want everyone's vote to count equally."
Poff added: "What's important to me is that Oregon doesn't start being really gerrymandered like some other states are."
Interestingly, as Johnson pointed out, over the last 100-plus years the Oregon State Legislature has rarely passed a redistricting plan. In fact, 2011 was the first time since 1911 that it passed a plan that was fully adopted. When the Legislature fails to pass a plan, the secretary of state takes control over state legislature redistricting and federal courts help decide Congressional districts. Johnson said a tight deadline, political interests and gubernatorial veto power often cause plans to stall.
"Any system should include safeguards and processes when things happen. But if it's been a chronic problem for years, then we should look at that and tweak it to get rid of the things that are causing problems," Poff said.
Neron, who upset incumbent Richard Vial based on a platform centered around education, health care and environmental reform, said redistricting reform isn't a priority for her but she is willing to learn more about it.
"To be totally honest I haven't heard that much issue of unfair redistricting so far. I have not tapped into that conversation," she said.
However, she said she could advocate for reform, potentially including closing a loophole that allows legislatures to redraw districts outside of the annual 10-year process (though LOWV President Norman Turill said that has never happened in Oregon).
"Oregon is a state with many different viewpoints and there's a lot of people who don't feel like they're represented because we have so much strong Democratic leadership right now," Neron said. "If that's the way voters are voting that's important. But if it's a result of gerrymandering we have to address that. It has to be fair."