Redistricting Deformed

Jesse Cornett

In one of my first forays into Oregon politics, I had the honor of working for then State Representative Steve March, a freshman Democrat in the 2001 Legislative Session. March is widely considered one of Oregon’s few redistricting experts and working with him piqued my interested in the process. As a logistical staffer, I later traveled the state with Secretary of State Bill Bradbury as he worked to finalize his redistricting plan.

To be clear here, we’re talking about redistricting state legislative boundaries. Reapportionment is when the number of Congressional seats shifts from state to state after the Census. The legislature is also tasked with redistricting Oregon’s Congressional Districts but that’s a process that seemingly always ends up getting settled in court anyhow in Oregon.

Redistricting makes sure that voters in political districts have equal representation. If the legislature can’t complete the process for state legislative districts in 6 months, the duty falls to the Secretary of State with final by the Oregon Supreme Court.

In 2001, Governor John Kitzhaber vetoed the Republicans' excessively partisan redistricting plan. In response, the House leadership attempted to pass a simple resolution to make it happen, prompting House Democratic Leader Dan Gardner to re-teach civics to his colleagues on how an idea becomes a law . In any event, the legislature failed to pass a redistricting plan within the legal deadline, bucking the role over to the Secretary of State’s office.

So because it hasn't worked in their favor, conservatives want to get rid of the longstanding existing process and have the judges directly change statute? Isn’t that the type of behavior they lambast as an “activist” judiciary?

Is the process perfect as it stands? Likely not. Do I trust the right wing fringe teabaggers to improve it? Heck no. The Oregonian sure trusts them. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the new publisher.

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    So Jesse, do you think the Democrats were wrong to take redistricting of congressional districts to the state courts in 2001?

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      Jack, you know better than that.

      The Oregon constitution doesn't allow for a fall back if the Legislature and Governor don't agree on a Congressional re-districting plan.

      The Sec. of State doesn't get to do it. S/He only has the authority to do legislative districts.

      The only way to do it, is to go to court to solve it.

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        But whenever that had happened previously, the federal district court did the redistricting. In 2001, the Democrats rushed into state court with their partisan plan.

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          Actually, in 1991 the legislature convened a special interim committee on congressional redistricting in response to the federal court panel's reluctance to do the actual line-drawing after a lawsuit was filed contending that the existing district boundaries (created in 1981) were unconstitutional because of population disparity. The result was a legislatively developed plan that did not receive a majority of committee votes, so no special session was called. The court then reviewed the committee product and deemed it satisfactory under the constitutional and statutory requirements.

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            Thanks for that detail on the 1991 redistricting. It sounds like a more balanced process, probably because that year the Democrats controlled the Senate but the Republicans controlled the House.

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          In 2001 both houses of the Legislature, which were both controlled by the GOP with Gene Derfler as Senate President and Mark Simmons as Speaker of the House appointed active redistricting committees. Several plans were produced and discussed; the one that passed did so along political party lines. The Governor, John Kitzhaber vetoed it. The Republicans, with a majority, tried to pass a resolution overturning the veto, which required a two-thirds vote. The Democrats refused to come back for the vote, staying on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation where the state troopers could not reach them. The veto held, and since it was almost at the July 1 deadline, Secretary of State Bill Bradbury took over the process.

          Because of past history, the Bradbury initiated a process for his office early in the session by checking the State Archives for the redistricting principles used by Secretary of State Phil Keisling in 1991. The time frame was daunting because a plan had to be drafted between July 1 and July 15 in order to get through the public hearings and challenges for a final plan to reach the Oregon Supreme Court by September 1. In addition to the 1991 principles, Secretary of State Bradbury added “no division of cities with less than 58,000 population and serious consideration of the role that counties play in rural areas.” None of the legislative draft plans were used, and the 1991 district lines were used as the beginning. Staff members were hired to work on the technical side of the plan and on assuring public access.

          A primary part of the plan was public participation, and 22 meetings were held across the state to discuss the draft plan. The staff toured the state, taking testimony and posting it on the website each day, along with map proposals, notes and suggestions. Resources such as lists of newspaper subscribers, as well as geographical barriers, were used to identify communities of interest. Regional maps were overlaid on a state map, and a special geographer was hired. The Secretary of State refused to participate in any private conversations with anyone during the entire process. The drafts were changed significantly from the first until the final draft, and the public access went well. The final draft had a population deviation of only one percent between the legislative districts across the state.

          Thirteen challenges were offered to the proposed 2001 plan, but the court sustained only one. That problem was recognized and corrected by Secretary of State Bradbury during the process. It occurred because the prison population in Sheridan was mistakenly put outside the city by the federal census which was corrected in the plan.

          So while I may be missing something, I don't understand your statement that "In 2001, the Democrats rushed into state court with their partisan plan." because it doesn't seem accurate by a reasonable reading of what I understood to have occurred.

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            You're confusing legislative redistricting with the redistricting of congressional districts. If the legislature doesn't act, the former goes to the Secretary of State while the latter goes to the courts.

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              Well aware. The point is, the GOP tired to ram through a highly partisan redistricting plan when they controlled both houses in 2001. The Governor vetoed and it went to the courts.

              Now because the GOP are in the minority in both houses and likely to remaining that way as well as the Democrats likely to retain the Governorship… the GOP is crying foul?

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    Welcome back to BlueOregon, Jesse!

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    Thanks Willie for the assist. What he said.

    I'm glad to be back on Blue O!

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    As if any part of Bradbury's redistricting plan was fair or unbiased. All you have to do is look at how some of the districts in the Portland area that used to swing more to the right, that now include larger blocks of liberal voters. When comparing the old maps to the ones after Bradbury's plan, it's so obvious what he was doing.

    Bradbury is one of the most polarizing, partisan political hacks this state has ever seen. There a reason why he lost to Kitzhaber so badly. His policies no longer even resonate with folks in his own party.

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      Wait a minute, Jason. It's still the same voters. If there are more D-leaning voters in those districts, there must be fewer D-leaning voters in other districts.

      Now, I'll acknowledge that gerrymandering is one possibility - but it's also true that political fortunes have shifted mostly because Republicans became dramatically unpopular.

      If Bradbury's 2001 map was so horribly gerrymandered, why didn't the Democrats take control of the House until 2006?

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    i'm sure Bradbury is responsible for the growth in NAV voters, too, not to mention Oregonians wising up to what the Republicans were doing when in power and an influx of Californians. yes, let's blame Oregon's shift away from hard-right politics towards its traditional and deep-rooted liberal instincts on Bill Bradbury. heck, put that way, i don't think he'd mind too much.

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    My biggest concern with the ballot measure that is heading our way is the source of the measure. Given the source it is automatically suspect. Second,assuming that it did not have any biased bombs buried within it, I am opposed to making Congressional districts in Democratic states more competitive while leaving Republican states free to re-district along partisan croweds. Texas redistricting by Tom Delay still burns. Congressional redistricting needs to be resolved at the national level, not the state level.

    Lastly the question becomes what is a fair non-partisan way to redistrict given where people live today. Over recent decades we have moved toward more self selection of political views by where people live. Democrats tend to move to communities with Democrats and Republicans with Republicans. As a result there are fewer split districts. Given the overwhelming concentration of Democrats in urban centers and Republicans in rural areas, cutting districts by normal geographic boundaries can create partisan results that are discriminatory to one side or the other when done in a seemingly neutral way.

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      "Congressional redistricting needs to be resolved at the national level, not the state level."

      I can't believe I just read that. Redistricting is totally a states issue and the federal government has no business deciding how our districts are formed and shaped.

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        Not entirely. The Oregon Supreme Court has the authority to review the redistricting plan at each stage of the process. Under Oregon law, when the Legislature is unable to agree on legislative and congressional redistricting plans, the process for redrawing the districts is split. The Secretary of State becomes responsible for the legislative districts and the federal courts for the congressional districts.

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        It may be done at the state level, but under guidelines set by the U.S. Supreme Court. My point is that as long as the Supreme Court says that Tom Delay can redistrict Texas for the benefit of Republicans, I don't think that Democratic states should give away the same advantage in their states.

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        Whether the feds should have any role to play, the fact is that they do.

        For example, in most of the Southern states, all redistricting plans must be submitted to the Justice Department for review - to ensure that they aren't racially gerrymandered.

        In any case, I'll agree with Calhoun's argument - which I hadn't previously considered. The rules should be the same for every state.

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      While I don't agree with your comment that Democrats tend to move to communities with Democrats, and Republicans...(I move to the community that has employment for me and my family, good schools, and community involvement opportunities, all of which are not partisan issues in my opinion), if the initiative is not to your liking, take a look at what other states do - or did in 1999 - as shown in this Legislative Policy and Research Office brief on redistricting at and come up with a competing proposal. At a minimum, get the electorate to discuss different models during the election cycle if the initiative makes the ballot.

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    Back of the envelope: is the system broken?

    Calculation of Oregon voters: 872,289 registered Ds 663,855 registered Rs (plus a bunch of unaffiliated and others)

    The overall D/R breakdown is 56.8%/43.2%. The current legislative breakdown is 60%/40% in both the Senate and House.

    So, if the Republicans had just one more seat in the State Senate, or two more in the State House, they'd be almost exactly where you'd expect them to be, even slightly overrepresented - 43.3% (pretending the non-affiliated and third party members have no preference between the two parties).

    Doesn't seem like the data demonstrate the initiative's implied problem.

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      And given that NAVs more than account for the difference between registration and actual current seats held, this is well within the general rubric of not being a broken system at all.

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    Jesse, when you say:

    So because it hasn't worked in their favor, conservatives want to get rid of the longstanding existing process and have the judges directly change statute?

    Where and how are they saying this? Not saying they aren't trying to go this route, but you don't give any background on this assertion.

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      Redistricting is done by statute. So, if a bunch of retired judges create the map, they're essentially writing the statute.

      I'm not sure I'm comfortable with outsourcing the writing of statutes to a bunch of unelected folks, well-meaning though they may be.

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        I am not arguing the merit of retired judges changing statute (or lack there of as the case may be), but rather were is the call that this be done?

        In other words, who is calling for this and where?

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    The proposal has some pretty interesting rules about which retired judges get to be on the panel.

    I'd like to see someone apply their rubric to the list of judges -- and figure out exactly why they wrote the rules the way they did.

    If there's a hidden stinkbomb in this thing, that's probably where it is.

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    Non partisan redistricting is not a conservative "tea bagger" plot, as much as Jesse tries to taint the idea with ideology and avoids wrestling with the idea directly.

    There is a nationwide movement toward non-partisan redistricting. Most of the advocates are good government types and scholars.

    13 states already have successful non-partisan redistricting commissions (see the lists here .

    It's not surprising that conservatives would bankroll such an effort in a D state, just as liberals would bankroll it in an R state. That may make it "automatically suspect" as John C. posts, but it's not sufficient to automatically reject it.

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      Paul, how would you define a "successful" nonpartisan redistricting commission as compared to an "unsuccessful" one?

      And how do you handle the argument that this is essentially outsourcing a legislative matter to an unelected body?

      I'm not certain (yet) that it's entirely without merit, but I think these are important questions to discuss.

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    We outsource all sorts of legislative matters, don't we? We allow regulatory agencies or the executive branch to implement rules and procedures.

    The legal end may be a problem but it does not seem to have been one in other states.

    There are a number of metrics by which redistricting plans can be evaluated and compared: contiguity, compactness, partisan skew, etc. Pick your poison.

    My only point here is that claims that non-partisan redistricting is some sort of right wing plot could not be further from the truth.

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      Yeah, but Paul, the legislature can override executive or agency rule-making through legislative action.

      Here, we'd be literally transferring authority for a legislative function to a judicial body. (Made up of semi-retired, unelected judges no less!)

      Talk about an activist judiciary...

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      There are a number of metrics by which redistricting plans can be evaluated and compared: contiguity, compactness, partisan skew, etc. Pick your poison.

      Yes, I know all that. The question was, how should we define what a successful commission would be?

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