Idea: Redistricting Reform

Editor's Note: On February 6, we asked BlueOregon readers to suggest progressive ideas that the next Oregon Legislature should enact. Over the next several weeks, we'll post some of these ideas here - and ask you to discuss them. Good idea? Bad idea? Any suggestions?

From Adam:

The one reform that would have the biggest impact on politics in Oregon and the nation as a whole would be redistricting reform.

Currently, most states allow some combination of the state legislature, governor, and secretary of state to create legislative districts. This creates a high stakes battle for control of these branches of government every ten years, in order to control the redistricting process and gerrymander more districts and/or safer districts for your own party. This increases extremism by allowing a greater number of candidates to get elected to safe seats where the real election is in the party primary, and also decreases the number of competitive seats where either party has a good chance of winning.

Perversely, if a party creates too many safe seats for its own incumbents, it risks also creating too many seats that are safe or that lean towards the other party. This rewards party incumbents at the expense of the party as a whole. It also promotes partisanship by electing a lot more folks than normal that can win party primaries but would have no chance at winning in a competitive general election.

Redistricting should be mostly a technocratic process, where districts are created according to natural geographic and community criteria, without attempts to game the system in favor of one party or another. It should be done by technocrats and computers as much as possible, with oversight of an equally weighted multi-party commission.

This would make more elections more competitive, and make it more likely that the legislature's makeup accurately reflects the people's will.


[If you have your own original progressive idea to propose, do it here: "There oughta be a law."]

  • LT (unverified)

    I recall 2001 redistricting. There were some good Democrats on the committee, but the Republicans controlled it with an iron fist. How Dare any ordinary citizen want to see their maps! Finally after going into the capitol and asking a lot of questions, I saw a map but it was only Congressional districts (why would I want to know what legislative district I'd be in??). And there was no logic to the Congressional districts except maybe someone thought they could win seats if they put counties together which had never been in the same congressional district.

    Eventually, it went to the Sec. of State, who actually had computers with maps anyone who found their 4th floor office could look at ("sure, just come into this room and give me your address...".)

    More importantly, there was some sort of printout justifying why each district was drawn the way it was.

    Darned right it should be a technocratic process with oversight--retired judges, sec. of state, county clerks or someone else with that sort of "on the ground" knowledge which can't be gained from a map and a spreadsheet. Don't divide a town unless absolutely necessary, etc.

    I recall a previous redistricting where there were actual public hearings in the capitol. Some folks from a local elementary school spoke and said that they didn't care what legislative district they were in, but could the state please put the entire school attendance area in one legislative district? That sort of consideration, along with natural boundaries (can rivers or mountains be a dividing line?) ought to be more important than drawing "safe" districts. And those districts can surprise people. If drawn to benefit a party, that means the surrounding districts benefit another party. If drawn to benefit an ethnic group, members of that group might have multiple candidates running with the result there is an Anglo rep. elected. Etc.

  • rewolfrats (unverified)

    I'm sort of torn on the subject.

    Often people suggest that districts should be drawn to minimize border length (close as possible to circles or squares). Maybe that's the easiest way to avoid conflict, but one effect of this is to break up natural communities sharing common interests that are not tightly clustered (i.e. coastal communities). I believe it is important for end member communities (urban portland, agricultural willamette valley, coastal oregon) to have a voice that speaks for them. Having a bunch of districts that demographically look like the entire state may cause the election of a lot of centrists but it also silences and marginalizes some communities. It's too easy for people to just see the black/white party benefits of redistricting and forget about community representation.

    The best solution for the state legislature might be geographically sensical multi-member districts (i.e. top 3 or 5 contenders are elected within district). Good luck making that fly though.

  • djk (unverified)

    I like 15 Senate districts with two senators from each district, serving staggered four year terms.

    While this may not be optimal in terms of grouping communities of interest, perhaps the law should require that district lines must follow county lines, which are drawn without regard for politics. If a county has to be divided due to large population, use existing city boundaries, rivers, freeways, or natural watershed divides. In larger cities, create districts by lumping together already recognized neighborhoods or districts. Base everything on either natural or artificial barriers that draw a clean line, or legal boundaries that were not created with the intention of forcing a particular election result.

    Within these guidelines, the district should be as compact and contiguous as possible.

    Rather than seeking precise population balance, impose a 90% rule: the least populated district must have 90% of the population of the most populated district, according to the most recent census. That provides roughly equal per capita representation in the legislature, while minimizing the opportunities for mischief under the pretense of complete equalization of population.

  • LT (unverified)

    I think regular contributor Russell Sadler remembers the days before single member districts.

    If memory serves, it was a US Supreme Court decision which led to "one person, one vote" and I think that led to single member districts--but I could be wrong because I was either in high school or college when all that happened and not following it closely.

  • (Show?)

    Multi-member districts do not violate "one person one vote." They are not per se unconstitutional but may violate constitutional provisions about racial discrimination.

    According to Corpus Juris Secundum, CJS CONSTLAW § 1275 (references omitted):

    "§ 1275. Multimember or at-large districts

    The Equal Protection Clause does not require single-member legislative districts.[FN1 ] Multimember districts in a legislative apportionment scheme are not per se unconstitutional.[FN2 ] Indeed, a totally at-large system of voting eliminates any defect in the system, viewed from a "one person, one vote" perspective.[FN3 ] Nevertheless, multimember and at-large districting schemes are subject to challenge where the circumstances of a particular case operate to minimize or cancel the voting strength of racial or political elements of the voting population.[FN4 ] Strict scrutiny is required of a classification of voters into both single-member and multimember districts, to remedy legislative redistricting plans that violated "whole-county provisions" of a state constitution, since this necessarily implicates the fundamental right to vote on equal terms.[FN5 ]

    A successful constitutional attack must be based on findings in a particular case that the plan in fact operates impermissibly to dilute the voting strength of an identifiable element of the voting population,[FN6 ] and that members of the minority in question have less opportunity than do other residents to participate in the political process and to elect legislators of their choice.[FN7 ] The standard of proof generally applicable to equal protection clause cases applies when multimember districts are challenged, and the invidious quality of a law claimed to be racially discriminatory must ultimately be traced to a racially discriminatory purpose.[FN8 ]"


    Thus, it might be unconstitutional to make all of Multnomah County a multi-member district for purposes of electing state representatives and senators, if doing so was designed to dilute the voting strength of African-Americans in NE Portland and result in no members of that racial group elected to the legislature from Multnomah County. Conversely, if members of racial minorities are spread somewhat evenly throughout a county, then making the entire county a multi-member district would be constitutional.

    Changing from single-member districts to double-member districts, as suggested by some above, would likely be constitutional, but it depends on the demographic facts on the ground and on the perceived intent of those who change the system.

  • (Show?)

    Also, djk's idea of having 15 senate districts, each electing one senator to a 4-year term at 2-year intervals, sort of misses what I think is aone of the the fundamental purposes of multi-member districts--to reflect the will of the voters in the district better than "first past the poll" single-member district elections. His suggestion is merely to have a different sort of single-member district.

    How does a multi-member district better reflect the political will of the voters? It allows the political composition of the district to be more accurately reflected in the outcome. Say you have 3 adjacent districts and in each one registration is 50% R and 30% D. In the djk version (and with ordinary single-member districts), you would expect the districts to pretty much always elect Rs. But say you combine the 3 districts into a multi-member district and elect 3 representatives at the same time. Then, you are quite likely to get 2 Rs and 1 D, which better reflects the political leanings of the area (and of each of the districts that were previously single-member).

  • Independent voter and proud of it (unverified)

    I would have prohibited the egotistical Bill Bradbury from renumbering the districts just so his old house district could be #1 instead of #50 of what ever it was. That was so lame....there was no valid reason for renumbering all this districts starting in the southwest corner of the state rather than the northwest corner...except Bradbury's ego.

  • Todd Foster (unverified)

    1990 was a technocratic redistricting. I dont' recall too many good things arising out of that plan.

  • Old Hart Delegate (unverified)

    If DeLay is convicted does Texas get a "do over" on redistricting? That was his baby and a good part of the influence peddling involved in the issue, wasn't it? It has left a huge republican advantage in the state. That just seems like getting to keep the money after being convicted of a bank robbery.

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