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Ruling likely dooms nonpartisan redistricting

The U.S. Supreme Court’s emergency stay Tuesday probably dooms an effort to put a measure on the November ballot to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission. And that means there will be no chance of changing the rules until the next federal Census in 2030.

Backers of the change want to amend the Oregon Constitution to take the job of drawing new district lines out of the hands of the Legislature, which is under Democratic control. Because of their majority, Democrats have the opportunity for the first time in modern state history to draw new legislative and congressional district boundaries without Republican votes after the 2020 Census. Oregon is expected to get a sixth U.S. House District because of an increase in population.

The People not Politicians coalition was working to collect about 150,000 signatures to place the amendment on the November ballot when the COVID shutdown hit, making in-person signature gathering virtually impossible.

The coalition, made up of business groups, the League of Women Voters and the government watchdog group Common Cause, collected 60,000 signatures and sued Secretary of State Bev Clarno, arguing that the coronavirus restrictions made it impossible to meet the higher threshold. U.S. District Judge Michael J. McShane ruled in their favor, saying the signature requirement violated the group’s First Amendment right to petition the government via the initiative process “in these most unusual of times.”

McShane ordered Clarno to either put the measure on the ballot or drop the threshold to less than 59,000 signatures and extend the deadline. Clarno chose the latter option, and eventually verified the lower number of signatures.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, a Democrat, appealed McShane’s order, although Clarno, a Republican, did not ask her to. When a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay the ruling while the appeal progressed, Rosenblum went to the Supreme Court, arguing that changing the rules violated the Oregon Constitution. Justice Elena Kagan apparently agreed, although the stay was issued with no explanation, as is customary. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor indicated they would have let McShane’s injunction stand.

The high court’s order means the appeal will proceed. If the 9th Circuit rules against Rosenblum, the Supreme Court might or might not agree to hear the case, but none of that is likely to happen before Sept. 3, the deadline for changes to voter’s pamphlet arguments.

That means the next redistricting will likely fall to the Democratic majority in the Legislature, which will be able to draw boundaries that will preserve the party’s supermajority control. The Republicans will surely appeal, but barring really egregious boundaries, will probably not prevail.

The Supreme Court in 2019 refused to stop partisan gerrymandering, saying it is powerless to hear challenges to the practice, but noting that several states have established independent commissions to draw district boundaries.

It’s unfortunate that Oregon voters will apparently have to wait a decade to decide that question.