Independent redistricting advocates look to 2024 after Oregon Supreme Court ruling

The court’s decision makes it impossible to get a measure on the 2022 ballot, supporters say

By: - May 2, 2022 4:55 pm

The Oregon Supreme Court could have two new members before Gov. Kate Brown’s term ends. (Salem Reporter)

A group of Oregonians who don’t want politicians to draw Oregon’s electoral maps are giving up on their attempts to reach the ballot this year to change that.

Petitioners sought to amend the Oregon Constitution to create an independent redistricting commission that would draw new legislative and congressional districts beginning in 2023. Before voters can indicate whether they support such a change, any initiative needs a ballot title – and the Oregon Supreme Court on Friday ruled that Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum needs to rewrite the one she drafted last year. 

“It will take, I imagine, about a month at least to actually get a ballot title settled,” said chief petitioner Norman Turrill, president of the League of Women Voters of Oregon Advocacy Fund. “By then we’re well into June and that leaves us about a month to gather signatures, which is just about impossible.” 

Instead, Turrill and other supporters – including former Secretary of State Phil Keisling, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and the Oregon Farm Bureau – say they’ll start their process anew for the November 2024 ballot. 

In a 24-page ruling, Supreme Court Justice Roger DeHoog concluded that Rosenblum must rewrite both the 15-word caption and 125-word summary to more clearly convey that the initiative would repeal and replace electoral maps the Legislature adopted last year. 

“The fact that IP 34 would effectively repeal and replace the state legislative and congressional redistricting plans for the current decennium, which the democratically elected Legislature recently enacted and shepherded through court challenges, is a highly significant effect of the measure,” DeHoog wrote on behalf of the unanimous court. 

Most western states already have independent commissions, but in Oregon the Legislature decides how to divide the state into voting districts, and the governor approves or vetoes that plan.

Last year, that meant legislative Democrats crafted maps that Republicans and nonpartisan groups that track redistricting say disproportionately benefit Democrats. The Oregon Supreme Court and other state judges upheld the maps against several legal challenges

The proposed initiative would create an independent redistricting commission of 12 people: four Democrats, four Republicans and four with no ties to either major party. Elected officials, lobbyists, campaign staff and their families wouldn’t be eligible.

Half the panel would be randomly selected from a pool of qualified applicants, and those six people would choose the remainder of the commission. The commission would then redraw congressional and legislative districts, prioritizing competitiveness while also following existing guidelines about making sure districts are geographically contiguous, don’t favor a political party or individual and comply with federal voting rights laws. At least one member of each party must approve the maps. 

Our Oregon, a political nonprofit that receives most of its funding from labor unions and typically supports Democratic policies, challenged the ballot title, saying it didn’t put enough emphasis on the proposed commission’s power or the fact that it would repeal the congressional and legislative boundaries adopted by the Legislature for the next 10 years. 

“Nullifying successful legislation passed by the legislature, and undercutting the extensive public participation underlying that legislation, is a dramatic outcome,” said a legal filing from Our Oregon’s executive director, Christy Mason. 

Turrill also asked the Supreme Court to add the word “independent” to the title, remove references to Democrats and Republicans and clarify that elected officials, political staff, consultants, lobbyists, party officials, major political donors and their families are ineligible. 

The court took nearly four months to rule on the combined challenges. 

Voters seeking to change state law face several hurdles before their proposed laws make it to the ballot. First, they must collect more than 1,000 signatures from Oregon voters. Then, the attorney general crafts a title and caption to impartially summarize the petition and its effects, and the secretary of state and attorney general decide whether the measure complies with the Constitution.

At this point, lawsuits filed by proponents or opponents of the measure are common. Only after the ballot title is complete and any legal issues are resolved can petitioners begin collecting tens of thousands of signatures from Oregon voters. In 2022, petitioners need 149,360 signatures for a constitutional amendment, 112,020 to create a new law and 74,680 to repeal a law enacted by the Legislature.

They must gather those signatures by July 8, four months before the election. Then, if the signatures are verified, the initiative appears on the ballot. 

Petitioners can file their petition for 2024 at any point – they just can’t begin collecting signatures until after the July 8 deadline for 2022 initiatives. Turrill said supporters may make minor changes before starting again. 

“The ballot title process will take again probably several months, but now that they’ve decided major issues, they should be able to do it very quickly,” Turrill said. “Our opponents will undoubtedly again try to delay us by appealing to the Supreme Court whether there’s some issue or not.”

Current ballot title

Amends Constitution: Repeals redistricting process by legislature; creates redistricting commission; equal number Democrats, Republicans, others; 2023 redistricting

 Result of ‘Yes’ Vote: ‘Yes’ vote repeals constitutional provisions on state redistricting; creates congressional/state redistricting commission; equal number of Democrats, Republicans, others. Repeals, replaces 2021 map in 2023.

Result of ‘No’ Vote: ‘No’ vote retains current redistricting process; legislature draws boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts every ten years. 2021 redistricting remains in force until 2031.

Summary: Amends Constitution. Oregon Constitution requires legislature to redraw state legislative districts every ten years. Legislature also draws congressional districts. Measure repeals current state constitutional processes; creates twelve-member commission to draw congressional and state legislative districts. Commission membership restricted based on length of residence/party affiliation, recent political work, political contributions, or family members who engaged in certain political activity. Secretary of State randomly selects six members from applicant group; other members chosen by first six. Four members must be registered with each of largest two political parties, four unaffiliated or from other parties. At least one Democrat, Republican, and other must agree for commission to approve map or take other action. Changes redistricting criteria. Repeals 2021 map; requires redistricting in 2023. Other provisions.

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.