Congratulations and Cautions as Redistricting Moves Into Final Legislative Stretch

For Immediate Release: May 25, 2011

For More Information: Janice Thompson at 503-283-1922

Common Cause Oregon applauds hearings on draft redistricting maps and urges continued transparency as the legislature possibly beats the odds to complete this task for the first time in decades.

Three legislative hearings on draft maps of new legislative and congressional districts wrapped up last night. “Providing meaningful opportunities for public input on proposed redistricting plans is a major improvement over the 2001 legislative process,” said Janice Thompson, Executive Director of Common Cause Oregon.

Ten years ago the Senate focused on congressional redistricting and while the House drew new legislative districts after a round of informational hearings similar to those held this spring. In 2001, however, there was one hearing in the House and one in the Senate on the actual maps prepared by the respective redistricting committees. Those hearings were dominated by legislators from the party in control presenting the maps, followed by work sessions within 24 hours. “Some have complained that releasing two sets of maps in 2001 prompted partisan sniping from both sides, but that is part of a transparent process and reflects that redistricting is both political and difficult,” continued Thompson.

It will be challenging to develop one redistricting plan with the votes needed for legislative adoption. “Compromises are difficult but needed because there is no magical map out there that will keep everybody happy,” said Thompson. “The catch is that compromise could result in sweetheart gerrymandering that preserves the political status quo to the detriment of addressing other redistricting criteria.”

If the legislature cannot agree on legislation outlining new district boundaries or if Governor John Kitzhaber vetoes their bill, developing a new congressional plan goes to federal court while Secretary of State Kate Brown would draw new legislative districts. That both these statewide officials are Democrats have some thinking that legislative adoption of a redistricting plan is unlikely. “Cooperation has marked most of the current legislative process and seems to have survived the unfortunate leak of draft maps so it may well be premature to give up hope for legislative success on redistricting,” says Thompson.

That Democrats hold the statewide offices with potential to affect redistricting reflects the overall voter registration edge of that political party. For example, of the 2 million registered voters eligible to vote last November, 42 percent were Democrats, 32 percent were Republicans, and 26 percent were members of minor parties or not affiliated with any political party.

Evaluating maps using voter registration data is inevitable but should factor in the growing numbers of voters not affiliated with either of the two major political parties. Also claims of gerrymandering for partisan advantage should be evaluated against the backdrop of overall registration trends.

A bigger problem regarding voter registration data is that it is not publicly available. However, political players with the money and technology to “geocode” registration data so it can be geographically linked to new district maps do have the data. This sets up a “wink and a nod” situation with the information presumably being shared with at least individual legislators. This also means that public access to voter registration comes from a political player in a form difficult for the public and press to independently verify. This sets the stage for a “buyer beware” blog entry titled Read GOP redistricting numbers for Oregon with caution by Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes.

Common Cause Oregon testified in February before the legislative redistricting committees that compliance with the redistricting criterion to not draw district boundaries for partisan advantage would likely be facilitated by public availability of voter registration data. This observation in February, considered counterintuitive at the time, is being borne out by the current difficulties in evaluating voter registration data and its use in evaluating draft maps.

Nevertheless, the Senate and House redistricting committees continue working together with excellent assistance from staff that deserves major kudos for organizing hearings in Salem and on the road as well as providing other opportunities for public review, including developing an interactive online map. “The clock is ticking but deciding on a final redistricting plan should include at least one more hearing for continued public review and input,” concluded Thompson