No political process can bring out raw partisanship quite as surely as redrawing legislative district boundaries after each Census. It doesn't have to be that way — Oregon's last go-round produced rare agreement — but when the people drawing the lines are those whose re-election chances and majority status will be helped or hurt by the outcome, bipartisan cooperation usually goes right out the window.
Voters in some states have responded to this reality by creating nonpartisan commissions independent of state legislatures. So far, Oregon has not, but a coalition of government watchdog groups wants to change that. We think they're on the right track, but their task won't be easy for a couple of reasons.
First, they must convince the Legislature to give up control of the redistricting process, something politicians are naturally reluctant to do.
Second, the Oregon Legislature did a remarkably even-handed job of redrawing district lines in 2011 after the 2010 Census, proving that it can be done. There was a reason for that: the House of Representatives in 2011 was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Bipartisan redistricting committees in both chambers managed to come up with a plan that both parties agreed to.
That was the first time in 100 years that the Legislature accomplished that feat without punting the task to the secretary of state or having the courts order changes. The chances of another even split the next time around are slim — and even if that happened, supporters of the new plan argue, less collegial personalities among the legislative leadership could lead to a very different outcome.
Backers of the new proposal, which include the City Club of Portland, Common Cause of Oregon, the League of Women Voters and AARP, made their case to the House Rules Committee this week. House Joint Resolution 17 would ask voters to amend the state constitution to create a bipartisan panel. Legislative leaders would appoint four members who would choose five more, including at least one who was not a member of a major political party.
Lawmakers on the Rules Committee reportedly were less than enthusiastic about the proposal. Given the weighty matters facing the 2013 Legislature — chief among them crafting a budget for the next two years — a proposed constitutional amendment affecting a process that won't happen again until after 2020 isn't likely to gain a great deal of traction.
That's why supporters are smart to start now in their efforts to change minds in Salem. They have plenty of time to build support.