Oregonians trust politicians to make decisions about what taxes are collected, how taxes are spent and policies that shape lives. But should politicians be trusted with setting up voting districts?
A proposed ballot measure aims to take politicians out of political redistricting. The measure would create a citizen commission to draw the lines. Would it be more fair? That’s unclear.
The new census will mean Oregon’s congressional and legislative districts will be redrawn. In Oregon, the districts are now redrawn by legislators. That could be putting the fox in charge of the henhouse — at least that’s what the groups supporting a citizen commission argue. The measure is backed by the League of Women Voters of Oregon, Oregon Common Cause, the Independent Party and The Taxpayer Association of Oregon.
It would work like this: It creates an independent, multipartisan commission of 12 Oregonians. They would hold public meetings across the state and draw up the boundaries in an open process. The goal is for it to be done fairly, respecting communities and less manipulated by partisanship or other politics.
The proposal takes substantial steps to keep politicians out of it. People would apply for the commission spots. Basically, paid politicians couldn’t be chosen. People who have recently run for such offices couldn’t be chosen. Neither could their staff. Political consultants are barred. An individual who has given more than $2,700 a year to any single candidate couldn’t be chosen. There are also requirements to limit the members from the two largest political parties and include nonaffiliated voters. From the pool of applicants, candidates for the commission would be winnowed by administrative law judges and would eventually be chosen by lot. The governor could remove someone from the commission, but only with a two-thirds majority vote of the Senate.
Gerrymandering began before it was called gerrymandering, before the country’s independence. It’s the idea of drawing a voting district so it will get a certain kind of candidate elected. The name was immortalized in a political cartoon satirizing a law signed by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812. The law redrew state Senate districts to ensure Gerry’s party — Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans — would be strong and John Adams’ and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists would be weak. It worked. One of the districts looked a bit like a salamander. Gerrymander was born.
The U.S. Supreme Court has been reluctant to decide when partisanship goes too far in gerrymandering. It would require two things difficult for the courts: defining what is fair and divining the future. What’s a clear test for fairness? There are many different ways to measure what’s fair. Fair to whom? Fair to what? As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, choosing one “poses basic questions that are political, not legal.” The courts would also have to look at a district and somehow know that in the future the outcomes it creates would turn out to be unfair — by some definition. It’s additionally unclear that the founders intended judges to decide such things.
These days, leaning on big data, political consultants have more tools than ever to draw up districts to get an outcome they want. Does Oregon need to change? Oregonians could do nothing. If legislators are making the redistricting decisions, they can be held accountable by voters, though it would be mostly after the districts are drawn.
An independent redistricting commission creates a way to try to minimize the influence of some politicians on the process. Commissioners will still have to make choices about defining what is fair. They will still have to guess if sticking the lines in one place will produce more “fair” outcomes in the future. We don’t know if the commission would be more fair. It might. It would get more Oregonians involved in making important decisions about how they are governed.