Earlier last month Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson announced his plans for a constructional amendment to place the task of redistricting into the hands of an independent commission. Currently Oregon is one of the many states in which redistricting is handled by the legislature themselves. Democrats in the state were quick to reject the plan as a Republican power grab, an attempt to gerrymander the state.
In 2011 something that hadn't happened for several decades occurred in Oregon. The legislature was able to pass a redistricting plan without challenge from the Supreme Court or the Governor. This is especially surprising because the House of Representatives at the time was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The redistricting bill passed with a wide margin. You could say that the redistricting plan of 2011 was bipartisan, but were districts still gerrymandered?
Gerrymandering in Oregon?
By many metrics used to estimate gerrymandering in a state, Oregon ranks near the top of the list. Many conservatives and other observers believe that gerrymandering is already the norm in Oregon. If you take a look at the districts I live in, senate district 30, divided into house district 59 and 60, the borders don’t exactly make much logical sense. Half of Wasco County makes up an odd shaped pan handle on a large blob.
Below is a map of how house districts looked before the last round of redistricting.
As you can see overall things are similar. However, by the criteria that districts should be as compact/circular as possible, a few districts certainly look a bit more gerrymandered. Districts 59 and 57 specifically had been significantly redrawn, with Wasco County and the City of The Dalles split in half. What was the effects of this redistricting? I’ve pulled some data from the Oregon Secretary of State’s records available online to find out.
In both of these districts Republicans gained a slightly larger voter registration advantage over Democrats after redistricting. How much of an advantage did incumbent Republican gain? The effects of the 2011 redistricting can most clearly be seen through election results. Senator Ted Ferrioli has only ran opposed twice in the last decade in 2016 when he did have a competitor he won by a 40% advantage. Senate District 30 is so uncompetitive and has been for so long it is not even worth considering the effects of redistricting. So, we will focus on Rep John Huffman in House District 59.
When we take a look at the results for elections before 2010 we see that Huffman enjoyed a fairly wide margin in most elections with one very competitive election in 2006. In 2010 (the election before redistricting) Huffman saw a huge advantage winning by at least 30%, and has every election since redistricting cracked the surprisingly left leaning Wasco County in half.
Some of the advantage in both the senate and house districts may simply be the result of long incumbency but it is clear to see that Republicans in these districts enjoyed an advantage before redistricting and that advantage has increased since then. Similarly in senate district 29 and house district 57 have similarly enjoyed very safe election in house district 57 Greg Smith had several contested races before 2011 in which he won by a large margin, since redistricting he has not seen a challenger on the ballot. Bill Hansell, in senate district 29, has won every election by a wide margin (once by 37%, later by 61%) since his district was redrawn.
I’d argue that the redistricting plan of 2011 was a bipartisan bill mutually beneficial for incumbents of both parties. All representatives mentioned above in office at the time voted for the bill. 2012 the Democratic Party saw gains in both state houses. Since then incumbents have enjoyed a 100% re-election rate with most districts without incumbent candidates being held by the same party as before. As a whole districts in Oregon were not competitive before the 2011 redistricting and are even less so now. Gerrymandering is clearly a problem though perhaps not in the partisan sense we typically consider it.
A balance of power
With Democrats now in firm control of both legislative houses, Dennis Richardson is not the only Republican looking to change the way Oregon redistricts. Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli has proposed several constitutional amendments to establish an “independent” redistricting commission. The problem with the senator's many proposals is that none of them establish a commission free of influence from the legislature, in them members are selected by legislative leadership.
The Secretary of State’s proposed amendment has been criticized for being complicated. Perhaps it is a little convoluted. However, the overly complicated method for selecting committee members is clearly designed to prevent undue influence from the legislature or any political party. This complexity also limits any direct influence the Secretary of State would have over the process, less power than the office has historically experienced.
Legislators should have no part in the creation of legislative districts. An independent redistricting commission will be a new and needed check the legislature to solidify members or parties in positions of power.