For all the many ways Oregon has organized itself governmentally in better and more advanced ways – mail voting, for example – ahead of lots of other states, it remains behind the curve in one important respect: Redistricting.
Legislative and congressional reapportionment is still done in Oregon by the state legislature – the old-fashioned, partisan and messy way. Three of the states around Oregon – California, Idaho and Washington – offloaded the job to redistricting commissions, set up to give the parties balance and avoid the prospect of a gerrymandered map being shoved down the throat of a minority, something that has happened (as we know) in a number of states.
The situation in Oregon has not been quite that unhappy, yet. In 2011 the legislature completed a redistricting map which passed with a strong bipartisan vote. That happened in large part because the districts were drawn so that incumbents of both parties would be relatively protected, so few lawmakers had much basis for personal grievance. It worked, politically, but the map was far from optimal on any basis other than incumbent protection. And it probably was an improvement over a decade earlier when the legislature did not get a map passed into law and the map was drawn by a court.
The commission approach, simply, is better. But how a commission works is important.
One approach, a proposed statewide ballot issue, is being floated by Kevin Mannix, a Republican and a former legislator and candidate for governor. It would set up a redistricting commission made up of 11 members. Fine so far, but there’s a catch: The members would be chosen by county commissioners, who would get to fill seats based in part on whether the local commission is partisan or not – and that varies among the counties.
It also would have two other effects. It would give tremendous clout, well in excess of their actual population, to the rural counties, which much outnumber the urban. It also would have a clear effective partisan effect: There are a lot more Republican counties in Oregon than urban; in most elections elections, Democrats win because they sweep a relative handful of the largest counties. The Mannix proposal would turn that situation on its head. (It also would affect only legislative, not congressional, remapping.)
You probably can figure his proposal won’t fare well at the polls.
There’s another proposal out there too, backed by the League of Women Voters. The one – which the group plans to submit to the legislature for action there – would try creating a relatively neutral commission selection process. They would be, as one news story said, “applicants would be screened for conflicts of interest and randomly selected,” and be chosen from a pool of politically uninvolved people.
Hmm. While the idea of redistricting sheltered from political self-dealing has some appeal, so does the idea of redistricting done by a group of people who know what they’re doing. Anyone who really has no opinion about how such a map should look may be someone who doesn’t know much about the state or state politics, and that’s probably not a great place to start either.
Most state redistricting commissions start with the presumption that maps will favor this side or that in various places, but also with the assumption that the advantages can be balanced out if you have a balance of power, a commission split deeply enough between the parties, and maybe with some outside interests thrown in, that the overall result will be roughly fair. That approach has more or less worked in Washington, Idaho and California, which have had experienced political hands from both parties involved in the process but also, under the rules, forced to more or less compromise.
It’s not perfect, and can be a little messy and argumentative at times, but it does get the job done in a sensible way that doesn;t put too many people at too much disadvantage.
And that may just be good enough.