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Redistricting plan would shake up system

A proposed initiative that would change the way Oregon draws its legislative and congressional district boundaries promises to get a lot of attention next year, and for good reason.

A new U.S. Census will be conducted in 2020, and estimates indicate Oregon could gain enough population to add a sixth U.S. House member when redistricting takes place in 2021. Who gets to draw the lines for six instead of five congressional districts becomes extremely important.

Beyond that, there will be a wide-open race for Secretary of State. Bev Clarno, the Republican appointed to finish Dennis Richardson’s term after his death last February, will not seek the office. That’s important because, under the existing system for redistricting in Oregon, the task of drawing new legislative districts falls to the Secretary of State if the Legislature cannot agree on a plan.

Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, so that party likely would call the shots on redistricting, unless the voters decide to take the job away from lawmakers.

A broad coalition of political and governmental watchdog groups is proposing a constitutional amendment that would create a 12-member redistricting commission, evenly divided among registered Democrats, Republicans and members of neither party. Interested citizens would apply, and a three-member panel of administrative law judges would select a pool of 150. Six applicants would be randomly selected, and those six would choose the remaining six from the same pool.

The coalition includes the Oregon League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, the Independent and Progressive parties, the Farm Bureau and the Taxpayer Association of Oregon.

Notably absent from that list is Our Oregon, the political organization that represents the interests of labor unions, environmentalists and other liberal groups. Our Oregon is apparently happy with the way things are, as long as Democrats remain in control in Salem. But that could change if the Democrats should lose their majority — or a Republican is elected secretary of state and the Legislature fails to produce a new district map.

Democrats in the Legislature are unlikely to get behind this effort, because the existing situation favors them — for now. They should consider, however, the possibility that the tables could turn before the next Census a decade from now.

Backers of the proposal have filed three separate measures in case one is shot down for violating the legal prohibition against initiatives that address more than one subject. They have until next July to collect nearly 150,000 signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot.

Relying on those in power to draw the lines that help determine who stays in power is not the best way to protect the public interest in fair representation. Voters should give this proposal careful consideration.

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