Oregon owes benefits to tens of thousands of unemployed workers, many of whom have been waiting for months. Stephanie Yao Long/Staff LC- The Oregonian (copy)

The Oregon Capitol.

Supporters of a proposal to hand Oregon’s redistricting process to an independent commission hoped lawmakers would consider and take input on the plan during the five-month legislative session.

With less than three weeks left, it appears lawmakers will go home without holding a single public hearing on the commission proposal, House Joint Resolution 7.

Dismayed supporters including good government groups, businesses and NAACP branches pleaded in a letter Wednesday to House Democratic and Republican leaders for those lawmakers to schedule a hearing.

“Oregonians deserve the opportunity to provide their opinions directly to their elected representatives on the well-supported alternative to the current redistricting process,” they wrote. “Our polling showed that 83% of Democrats, 70% of Independents and 62% of Republicans in Oregon support reforming our redistricting process to create an independent citizens’ commission that would draw our legislative and congressional districts.”

A top Democrat in the House on Wednesday listed numerous objections to the plan and said the status quo system of lawmakers redrawing their own electoral lines and congressional districts every 10 years is fairer and more accountable to voters.

“The most representative body is a 90-person Legislature, elected and accountable to the people, rather than a hastily convened 15-20 person commission,” Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, said in an emailed statement. She pointed out that House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, gave Republicans equal membership on the House committee working on redistricting plans for the next decade. The Legislature faces a September deadline to complete that work.

The resolution introduced in the Legislature is essentially the same as an initiative proposal that failed to get on the 2020 ballot, after the pandemic made it difficult to gather signatures. Its chief sponsor is House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby, and six other Republicans are also sponsors, so not surprisingly the caucus wanted a hearing on the plan.

“Equal participation on the redistricting committee is good, but an independent redistricting commission is better,” Rep. Daniel Bonham of The Dalles, who is on the redistricting committee and serves as deputy House Republican Leader, wrote in an emailed statement. “If people don’t want politicians to choose their own voters, then we should have a public dialogue on this issue and consider a system that both Washington and California have already adopted.”

Smith Warner said she believes an independent redistricting commission would turn out to be less diverse and representative of Oregon’s population than the Legislature, whose members must come from around the state. Lawmakers of color account for roughly 14% of the Legislature, while people of color make up 25% of Oregon’s population.

“In proposals for independent commissions we’ve seen unacceptable exclusions of entire categories of Oregonians from the opportunity to serve on the commission,” Smith Warner said.

Proposals for independent redistricting commissions in Oregon including House Joint Resolution 7 would generally bar lobbyists, big campaign donors, elected officials, their employees and political party leaders from serving on the commission.

Without explicit requirements for a redistricting commission to reflect the racial, gender, age and geographical demographics of the state, Smith Warner said, “it is entirely possible that the commission could be made of a small interest group that doesn’t represent Oregon at all.”

Nationally, Democrats have supported independent redistricting commissions and have promoted the idea as a way to curtail gerrymandering in some Republican-controlled states.

Oregon voters could still get to decide whether to adopt such a commission, even if lawmakers don’t send the plan to the ballot for 2022. In April, supporters filed a new initiative proposal. It would not only create an independent redistricting commission but task it with redrawing the districts after just one election cycle, in 2024.

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