SALEM — After years of trying, Norman Turrill of Portland thought he had finally made some progress in preventing Oregon politicians from picking their voters.
In 2017, then-Secretary of State Dennis Richardson invited Turrill to serve on a task force aimed at reforming how the state draws its legislative and congressional districts.
Every 10 years, the Legislature is tasked with adjusting the state’s legislative and congressional districts to account for changes in population. The process is highly political as lawmakers draw a map that could give an advantage to incumbents or their political party.
Richardson’s task force described Oregon as “susceptible to political manipulation” and concluded the system was “defective and should be overhauled.” The task force proposed giving the job to an independent commission, taking it out of the hands of politicians.
“When the legislature has control of the process, they often gerrymander the districts so they are not competitive or don’t represent the communities of interest,” Turrill said. “The incumbents then have almost no ability to be replaced. The shape of the district does not matter. It’s the votes for the politician.”
The group met for nearly a year before reporting to the Legislature. Lawmakers wouldn’t even hold a hearing on proposed legislation, according to Turrill.
With that 2017 failure, a few task force members hope to ask the state’s 2.7 million voters to put the independent process in place and change how redistricting has worked for the past 160 years.
Last week, a political action committee, “People Not Politicians,” filed a petition to put the matter on the 2020 ballot. The measure would create the Citizens Redistricting Commission comprised of four Democratic voters, four Republican voters and four voters who identify with a third party or are nonaffiliated.
The ballot effort has drawn together an unusual constellation of Oregon groups.
Included are groups ranging from Common Cause Oregon and Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group to the Oregon Farm Bureau and the Taxpayer Association of Oregon. Also on board are the NAACP of Eugene/Springfield, the American Association of University Women and the League of Women Voters of Oregon. The Independent Party and Progressive Party have also signed on.
To get before voters in November 2020, the groups need to submit 1,000 signatures backing the proposed ballot title. Once the measure language is approved, they will need 149,360 voter signatures to earn a spot on the ballot.
The measure comes at a time when redistricting is coming under scrutiny across the country. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it couldn’t stop legislators from creating districts that give their own party an edge in voter registration. Eric Holder, former attorney general in the Obama administration, has launched a campaign aimed at the issue and several states are considering reforms.
Most such efforts target states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where Republicans have been accused of using redistricting to give their party lopsided legislative victories.
While few claim that Oregon’s redistricting process is so partisan, critics say it leaves some Oregonians without a voice.
It’s also not clear how the Democratic Party, which has dominant command of state government, will respond. Molly Woon, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Oregon, said the party is neutral on the idea but may take a stance next year.
The Oregon Republican Party didn’t respond to a request for comment. Evan Ridley, political director of the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, said in an email that a “balanced citizen-driven commission made up of Oregonians from across the state would provide a better opportunity for transparency and fair representation for all Oregonians, especially those who tend to be under-represented in the Legislature like rural Oregonians and seniors.”
The process of reshaping boundaries of the districts served by senators and representatives happens every 10 years following the latest census. The U.S. Census Bureau is gearing up for the 2020 count, which could produce another congressional seat for Oregon.
“The stakes are super high,” said Julie Parrish, a former Republican state representative who supports the initiative. She pointed out that after the last redistricting in 2010, the House’s 30-30 party split changed. She worries that Democrats will seek a tighter grip on state government in the next process.
She said it could put some Democrats who’ve publicly supported redistricting reform in an awkward position. She already expects the state’s powerful unions, a key constituency of the Democratic Party, to challenge the initiative.
Redistricting has been a politically fraught topic in the U.S. from its early years. In the early 1800s, the term “gerrymander” was coined after Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry enacted a law that drew legislative districts representing a salamander that gave his party outsized influence.
Currently, 14 states including California and Washington primarily use a commission to do redistricting. The Oregon Constitution assigns that duty to legislators. Their plan is approved by the governor and reviewed by the Oregon Supreme Court.
Turril said the Legislature has a spotty history with redistricting. He said only twice in the past 100 years have lawmakers succeeded in approving a new map, in 2011 and 1981.
“Every other time it’s failed in some way, either in the Legislature, the governor vetoed the bill or it was thrown out in court,” Turrill said.
When that happens, the job is passed to the secretary of state, which is a partisan office.
In recent years, Oregon voters have favored Democrats. Statewide, 35% of voters are registered Democrat to 26% registered Republican. The rest are nonaffiliated or affiliated with other parties, a percentage that has risen since Oregon passed its automatic-voter registration law in 2015.
The petition’s backers say the current redistricting process doesn’t serve the whole state.
Sal Peralta, secretary of the Independent Party, said races for legislative seats too often aren’t competitive.
“(This is) happening at a time when an increasing number of people are becoming disenfranchised with the major parties as evidenced by the growth of both our party and a number of nonaffiliated voters in the state,” he said.
Peralta and Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, said the current system allows for “bipartisan gerrymandering.”
Titus said both major parties have an incentive to avoid a court confrontation, so they make deals to protect control of certain legislative seats.
“If they are responsible for drawing the (district) lines, they are going to do so in a way to build party power and protect their own people,” she said.
Titus said as a result community interests aren’t considered during redistricting. For instance, she said it might make sense for voters in a watershed with a pollution issue to all be in the same legislative district.
She said an independent commission won’t flip the state from red to blue but would produce more competitive elections.
The groups backing the ballot measure say they have more in common than appears.
“We have a history working with issues from people from all different political stripes,” said Jason Williams, the executive director of the Taxpayer Association of Oregon, who cited work on judicial reform and term limits.
The Oregon Farm Bureau has also endorsed providing transparency and balance to the redistricting process, stating that working families from all over Oregon deserve a say in how their communities are represented. The group’s president, Sharon Waterman, is listed as co-chief petitioner with Turrill.
“Farmers do not get to choose their weather. Politicians should not choose their voters,” the group said in a statement, declining further comment.
Titus credited the League of Women Voters of Oregon for bringing together the range of organizations. Turrill, who is nominating chair of the League’s Portland chapter, points to widespread popularity of redistricting reform as the reason groups have flocked to support the cause.
“I think (our proposal) will have support from both left and right, in part because they don’t have any other place to go,” Turrill said. “Fairly drawn districts benefit everybody in the long run.”