Editorial: Play ball on redistricting

It was disappointing last summer when a proposed measure to make a constitutional change, to take final decisions on drawing Oregon legislative and congressional district lines out of the hands of legislators and put them in the hands of judges, failed to make the November ballot for lack of support.

The districts we voted in during the recent election come to us courtesy of the Secretary of State, who has had the final word on redistricting since 1961. The political dominance of the urban population is a result of how those lines were drawn last time around. That’s why rural residents, who don’t necessarily subscribe to such philosophies as “take from-the-rich (or, those who work) and give-to-the-poor (or, those who don’t),” or that “urban animal enthusiasts know more about what’s best for Oregon’s forests and wildlife than the people who live among the trees and the cougars,” or that “rural folks don’t know the best uses for their land, water, etc.” are left out in the cold when decisions are made – by residents of Multnomah and Lane counties.

But it’s funny how things come around. Although Oregon’s congressional delegation remains strongly Democrat for the next two years, the state Legislature has a much more even balance of power – though delicate – with an even split between the GOP and the Democrats in the House, and the Senate still up in the air as we go to press.

Despite the fact that the state constitution still needs a rewrite to fix its inherent problem of partisan redistricting (gerrymandering), we can all hope that this time the Legislature can do the deed and not send the issue to Secretary of State Bill Bradbury (a Democrat).

We encourage the backers of the proposal to get their act together and promote more successfully a similar proposition that should have the support of every voter in Oregon.

The problem is illustrated by someone familiar to many of us in Linn County, Rep. Phil Barnhart, who represents the 11th House District, which includes the Crawfordsville area. Phil occasionally shows up to events here in the Sweet Home area, but he is a liberal Democrat from South Eugene, elected in 2000 to represent that area and the neighborhoods around the University of Oregon. As a result of redistricting in 2001, he ended up representing a portion of much more conservative Oregon.

In this past election Barnhart won again. But when you look at the numbers, he got 59 percent of the vote in the Lane County portion of the district, while Republican Kelly Lovelace, a grass seed farmer, won 65 percent in the Linn County portion.

Another example is the race between Congressman Peter DeFazio, a Democrat, and Republican Art Robinson. The Fourth District covers parts of seven counties, but DeFazio won with votes from Lane, Benton and Coos counties.

We encourage readers to vote in every election because it’s the right thing to do – and your single vote can make a huge difference, particularly in local races. But it is frustrating to live in a community where the majority of residents see things one way, but their legislative and congressional leaders may come from the political polar opposite. That’s not the kind of representation we need. The intent of our Constitution, both on the state and federal levels, is to give the majority of a community a voice, not just a vote.

That’s why we urge the Legislature to get its act together next year and craft a plan that gives rural – and urban – residents representation that reflects their communities, a real voice in Salem.

If the Legislature can’t do it, Secretary of State Kate Brown, a Democrat, will have the final say just like Bill Bradbury did a decade ago, and we can see how that turned out.