Oregon had a chance to do redistricting right. Instead it made a mess of things, further dividing our state politically and further eroding Oregonians’ confidence in the electoral system.

For a brief, shining moment it appeared that state lawmakers might be able to rise above partisan differences and deliver a new set of legislative and congressional district maps that equitably partitioned the body politic. But that was not to be.

In April, the Republican minority in the House agreed to stop using delaying tactics to block bills they didn’t like in exchange for a promise from Democratic House Speaker Tina Kotek to give the GOP equal representation on the House redistricting committee. But in September, with the deadline to deliver the new political maps looming, Kotek broke that deal and the Democrats pushed through new maps that solidified the party’s hold on Oregon’s legislative and congressional seats.

Redistricting, of course, is the once-a-decade process by which political boundaries are redrawn to reflect changes in overall population and in the way the population is spread out across the state.

After the 2020 census, Oregon qualified for an additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives because our population grew relative to that of other states (Oregon also gained a vote in the Electoral College). That meant a new set of lines had to be drawn to carve the state into six congressional districts instead of the current five. Likewise, Oregon’s 30 state Senate and 60 state House districts had to be rejiggered to reflect population shifts over the last 10 years.

The rules governing the redistricting process vary from state to state, but a few key principles apply. First and foremost, each district should contain approximately equal numbers of residents. For congressional districts, population must vary by less than 1% from district to district; at the state level, the variation must be less than 10%.

In Oregon, both must respect existing geographic and political boundaries, should not divide communities of common interest and must not be drawn for the purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent or other person.

It’s hard to argue that the state’s new congressional map meets any of those criteria. District 2, the reliably Republican district that encompasses a huge swath of Eastern Oregon, comes close. But the new map carves out the Democratic-leaning Bend area and attaches it to the oddly-shaped District 5, which crosses the Cascades, scoops up a big chunk of the Willamette Valley and runs all the way up to deep-blue Portland. Districts 1, 3 and 6 also reach out to take a piece of the Portland area, while District 4 contains most of the coastal counties as well as the Democratic enclaves of Eugene and Corvallis.

The result is that at least four, and possibly five, of the state’s six congressional seats will likely be held by Democrats for many years to come.

While the new legislative maps aren’t quite so blatantly partisan, they have the effect of locking in the Democrats’ supermajority in the Legislature. As Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, put it in a recent visit with the Blue Mountain Eagle: “The blue districts got bluer, the red districts got redder, and there are more blue districts.”

It’s true that registered Democrats significantly outnumber registered Republicans in Oregon, but it’s also true that our state has a large and growing number of voters who are not affiliated with any political party. A truly fair redistricting process would recognize this fact and create as level a playing field as possible for all political parties while respecting geographic boundaries and communities of interest. That’s the way to restore trust in the electoral process.

A group called People Not Politicians is working to get a measure on the November 2022 ballot that would create a nonpartisan redistricting commission for Oregon, a step that a number of other states have already taken. We’ll have to look closely at the details of that proposal if and when it qualifies for the ballot, but frankly this is a move that is long overdue. Oregonians have grown weary of politicians who game the system for their own benefit at the expense of the people they were supposedly elected to serve.

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