On Wednesday, the Bend City Council will finally hear a citizen committee’s recommendation to have voters elect a mayor and choose some city councilors from four geographic districts, called wards.
The ward map they’ll look at — which may change before it goes to voters and will almost certainly change after the 2020 census — looks little like the four quadrants most members of the city’s charter review committee expected when they began their work in August. The proposed wards curve around each other, intersecting like puzzle pieces and with few straight lines to be found.
The proposed ward boundaries have led some committee members, council liaison Bruce Abernethy and Bend residents to say various possible maps look “gerrymandered.” But a funny-looking map doesn’t necessarily mean it was a product of gerrymandering, or manipulating voting districts to benefit a specific group or political party.
What gerrymandering is
Politically based redistricting has existed since the earliest days of the United States: In 1788, former Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry (he of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame) persuaded the new state’s Legislature to redraw one of its congressional districts to force political rival James Madison to run against James Monroe.
But the act didn’t get a name until 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a redistricting law meant to benefit his Democratic-Republican party. A political cartoon in a Boston newspaper added wings, claws and the dragon-like snout of a mythologized salamander to one particularly oddly shaped district, and an accompanying article described the shape as a gerrymander, a portmanteau of Gerry’s name and the word salamander.
Since Gerry’s time, state officials of political parties throughout the country have played with district boundaries to entrench their political power. This most often happens the year after a census, taken every 10 years, when states learn how many people they’ve gained or lost and have to redraw congressional and legislative lines to ensure each representative has roughly the same number of constituents.
Several states have independent redistricting commissions to draw district boundaries, but the majority of states, including Oregon, let state legislatures draw their own boundaries and those of congressional districts. That means that in most states, the party that wins the most state House and Senate seats and governorships during the 2018 and 2020 elections will have the power to draw maps favorable to their own parties for the next 10 years.
It lets representatives create safe seats for themselves, Bend City Attorney Mary Winters said.
“The party in power can draw the districts, and one of the problems with the party in power drawing the districts is that they make it really hard to get rid of them if voters don’t like what they’re doing,” Winters said.
Types of gerrymandering
So if a party in power wants to manipulate election laws, how can they do it? The two main methods are “packing” and “cracking.”
Packing is cramming many like-minded voters into one district, while making them the minority in surrounding districts. This surrenders one district to the opposing party, while creating several more for the party in power.
Cracking, meanwhile, spreads like-minded voters across many districts, making them the minority. A common example of this would be combining sections of urban areas, where voters tend to be lean Democratic, with swaths of Republican-leaning suburban and rural areas to dilute the city dwellers’ votes.
Oregon law requires that districts be contiguous, have equal populations, be connected by transportation links and use existing geographic and political boundaries. State law also requires that districts avoid dividing communities of common interest — which is an argument for how state House District 54, which mostly aligns with Bend’s city limits, ended up as the hole to the doughnut of House District 53.
At the federal level, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits states from drawing district lines in a way that would dilute the voting power of racial and ethnic minorities.
Along with those laws, the Bend staff who drew up potential ward maps followed directives from the League of Oregon Cities, which recommended keeping districts compact and preserving existing geographical regions and political subdivisions (such as voting precincts).
What the courts say
Most gerrymandering cases that make it to the U.S. Supreme Court allege racial gerrymandering, not partisan. It’s easier to tell if redistricting affects minority voters or violates the Voting Rights Act than it is to decide whether districts were drawn to cause a partisan advantage.
“Courts have been hesitant to say when it’s been too much,” Winters said.
Bend City Council positions are nonpartisan, meaning Bend residents won’t see a “D” or “R” after a candidate’s name when they cast their ballots in November.
County political parties endorse candidates, but the candidates themselves typically don’t campaign as Democrats or Republicans. And most city decisions have little to do with national party politics.
“It’s an irrelevant question when you’re not voting for a political party,” Winters said.
So why does the proposed Bend map look so weird?
Remember that recommendation to keep existing political subdivisions inside districts? Each proposed ward in Bend contains several intact voter precincts, and the precincts come with odd-looking boundaries.
For the most part, precinct lines follow definite — but not necessarily straight — paths, Deschutes County Clerk Nancy Blankenship said. They might follow a roadway, or a tax lot line.
Unlike districts, voting precincts don’t have to contain an equal number of voters.
“You could have a minimum of one up to 10,000,” Blankenship said.
That disparity in precinct population means cities using precincts to draw ward lines have to combine multiple oddly shaped precincts into districts with roughly equal population.
“I’ve looked at the ward maps of other cities, and none of them look normal, really,” Winters said.
Charter review committee co-chair Brent Landels proposed a different map that more closely resembled the four quadrants committee members first envisioned. But because of the shape of voting precincts, it also had oddly intersecting boundaries.
“There is no perfect way to draw it,” Landels said. “Even the one I preferred during deliberations wasn’t perfect.”
Although Landels didn’t vote for the committee’s recommended map, he said he will “absolutely” support whatever map the City Council decides on and will explain to Bend residents why the maps look they way they do.
“It looks the way it looks because of rules we have to follow,” Landels said. “I think people are used to that. Ideally it would just be a straight line down and a straight line across, but that doesn’t work.”
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