Keep redistricting process independent

My View • Oregon's legislative boundary changes can't put foxes in charge of henhouse
by: L.E. BASKOW The makeup of the House of Representatives — as well as the Oregon Senate  — could change once redistricting is completed following the recent census. A My View writer argues that redistricting should be done by an independent commission, not by legislators themselves.

Redistricting, the process of drawing new congressional and legislative districts, is critically important because it influences who will represent Oregonians in Washington, D.C., and Salem for the next 10 years.

Right now, legislative redistricting committees are hard at work using 2010 census data to draw new district maps to ensure they are of equal population.

Having legislators' pick their own voters when they draw new boundaries of their own districts is similar to foxes designing the hen houses they will raid. This is why Common Cause Oregon supports the drawing of new district lines by an independent commission.

A commission approach, however, will not remove politics from redistricting. Regardless of who draws new maps, redistricting is an inherently political process. At the same time, review of population distribution patterns and voter registration trends, including the growing numbers of Oregonians who do not belong to a major political party, must be considered when evaluating claims of line drawing for partisan advantage, often called gerrymandering.

Details of an independent redistricting commission proposal are also extremely important, especially since there are many positive aspects of our state's redistricting process that must be retained. This means that reform proposals considered adequate in some states would not be acceptable in Oregon.

A quick note on the redistricting timeline is that legislative action is required by the end of June. If legislators can't agree on a bill describing new district maps or the governor vetoes their plan, the secretary of state takes over drawing new legislative districts while congressional redistricting goes to the federal courts.

Because census data was only released in late February, another reason to consider a commission approach to redistricting is to reduce legislative workload, especially since the move to annual sessions also sets June 30 as the deadline to complete all its other responsibilities. Changing redistricting from a legislative task, especially since lawmakers don't have a great track record of success, could also give an independent commission longer to work up its proposal.

One important redistricting criterion to retain from current law is to maintain communities of interest. Representation is an important goal regardless of who draws the lines and is one reason the census counts everyone. Because communities come in all sizes and shapes and meeting population targets can be challenging, appearance can't be the only method of evaluating a district and an independent commission should be provided training to avoid this simplistic approach.

Another important criterion in current state law is that redistricting cannot dilute minority-voting strength. Oregon's communities of color have grown to 22 percent of total population. Latinos are the fastest growing group and now represent 12 percent of our state's population. It is both legal and fair to draw both 'majority-minority' and 'minority opportunities' districts, especially since the Oregon Legislature does not reflect the growing diversity of our state.

Another valuable legal criterion for Oregon redistricting is that lines can't be drawn to favor an incumbent legislator or to favor any political party. An independent redistricting commission proposal should consider what data would be helpful for evaluating compliance with this requirement.

In general, an independent commission proposal should retain Oregon's criteria for redistricting that are among the most detailed and respected in the country. Oregon's criteria also reflect the need to balance multiple considerations because redistricting is not a 'one size fits all' process

Another valuable feature of Oregon's redistricting process is an emphasis on public hearings. To get local input on communities of interest, informational hearings are typically held across the state. The hearings are an excellent tradition but not required in current law. A minimum requirement for public input should be included in an independent redistricting commission proposal.

Even more important, an independent redistricting commission proposal should mandate meaningful opportunities for public review of draft maps. Without hearings on proposed maps, the initial informational hearings are a hollow exercise.

Signals from Salem indicate that there will be hearings to obtain public input on draft maps this month, which would be a significant improvement from the 2001 legislative process.

Much of the testimony at hearings, however, illustrates both the political nature of redistricting and the value of an independent redistricting commission. Though political advantage can't be an explicit consideration, it seems clear that many testifying at hearings this spring are repeating political party talking points and emphasizing views of their community to nudge line drawing to provide a partisan edge to one party or the other.

Political dynamics behind much of the redistricting testimony would be the same in hearings before an independent redistricting commission. The critical difference is that the people hearing that testimony would no longer be elected officials drawing their own district lines.

The major policy development challenge regarding an independent redistricting commission is selection of its members. Retired judges are often turned to, presumably because the judiciary is valued for its independence and impartial decision-making.

One concern, however, is that this group is even less representative of Oregonians than legislators. A commission selected through an application process with knowledge and partisan balance requirements is currently doing California's redistricting. The feasibility of that approach in Oregon should be assessed.

Designing an independent redistricting commission proposal is challenging, but this approach deserves careful consideration to remove the inherent conflict of interest in the current process. Just as foxes shouldn't design hen houses, legislators shouldn't draw their own districts.

Janice Thompson of North Portland's Overlook neighborhood is executive director of Common Cause Oregon.