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Reports call for independence in future redistricting process

City Club's proposal hopes to find traction in the Legislature

State lawmakers redrew Oregon political boundaries last year without a major partisan blowup.

Don't expect it to happen again.

So say Common Cause Oregon and a Portland City Club committee that's been studying redistricting for the past year. Both government-reform-minded groups issued reports this week calling for major changes in the way Oregon redraws political boundaries after each Census.

'Partisanship, real or perceived, is inherent in redistricting when it is under the control of a partisan legislature,' the City Club committee concludes.

Instead, the committee calls for Oregon to join six other states that use independent commissions to redraw maps after the U.S. Census revises population figures every decade. The City Club committee is hoping the Legislature can be persuaded to put the idea of an independent commission before voters as a constitutional amendment.

Legislative leaders would choose the first four members of the independent commission, and those four would select another five members. None of the members could be officeholders, and they'd have to agree not to seek elected office for the next five years.

The full City Club votes on its committee's recommendations on Feb. 17.

Common Cause argues that an independent redistricting commission may be the best solution, but it focuses on ways to improve the process no matter who is in charge.

Perhaps its main recommendation is to provide the public with the voter registration data that is always used - but rarely acknowledged or shared with the public - when legislators redraw House, Senate and congressional district lines. Common Cause refers to that as a 'wink and a nod' approach.

Common Cause argues that the public can more easily respond to subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to redraw political boundaries for partisan gain if the voter registration data is easily available, and not just held by those with the money to pay for specialized software.

Reflecting diversity

One reason Common Cause and the City Club committee released the reports this week was to get the discussion going while the Oregon Legislature is meeting in Salem. Though neither group expects any redistricting bills to pass during the one-month session, both groups say now is the time to start planning changes to avoid problems in 2021, the next time redistricting will occur.

Since 1961 in Oregon, the Legislature gets the first crack at drawing the new House and Senate boundaries, and if both chambers can't agree on the new maps, or the governor won't concur, the job goes to the secretary of state. For congressional districts, appeals go to the Oregon Supreme Court.

As the City Club report notes, last year was the first time in a century when the Legislature completed a redistricting plan without the intervention of the secretary of state or the courts.

Common Cause, to complement the work of the City Club, argues for several technical changes, including requiring at least 10 hearings around the state. The group also proposes to change the system whereby prison populations are deemed residents of the district where the prison sits, rather than where the inmates lived before. Common Cause argues that it distorts a community's population when drawing districts where prisons are located.

If the Legislature doesn't act, other political operatives may.

During the past few years, Republican initiative activists have proposed ballot measures that would hand the redistricting process over to a panel of judges, rather than let the Legislature remain in charge.

Common Cause argues that a panel of judges is unlikely to represent the diversity of Oregon.