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How Redistricting In Oregon and Colorado Made The Case For State Independent Redistricting Commissions

Civil Rights Policy Brief #175 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | October 6, 2021

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Photo taken from: Politico

Policy Summary

On September 27, 2021 Oregon became the first state in the union to pass congressional and state legislative redistricting maps after the 2020 Census. Soon thereafter one of Colorado’s two independent redistricting commissions approved a state map for Colorado’s congressional state map.

After the decennial U.S. Census counts the nation’s total population and determines how many congressional representatives each state should have based on the state’s population, every state redraws the boundaries of the congressional and state legislative districts in their state. This is done to accommodate changes such as if a state gained or lost an additional representative due to population growth. However, the process of re – drawing state maps had traditionally been done by the members of the state legislature, subject to approval by the state governor. This created problems because maps were sometimes drawn and manipulated to keep a certain person or political party in power.

Lately, states have tried to counter this by using state independent redistricting commissions. In the fourteen states that use independent redistricting commissions, a set number of people are appointed to the commission with an equal number given to members of both political parties. Additional persons unaffiliated with any political party are appointed to the remaining seats on the commission. The commissions generally hold public hearings to gather info and take this into consideration when drawing the state map. A simple majority vote is needed to approve the maps which are then subject to approval by the state supreme court.

Colorado’s Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission drew Colorado’s map for congressional representatives. Oregon’s map went through the traditional route of state legislative approval and signature by the state governor.

Policy Analysis

The approval of maps by Oregon and Colorado illustrates the stark differences when a state relies on the traditional method of state legislatures drawing state maps and when a state uses a state independent redistricting commission.

The problem of having state lawmakers draw new congressional and state legislative maps for their state is that state lawmakers will often try to draw a map that favors themselves and their political party. Historically in some states maps had been drawn to such an extreme to ensure a politician will stay in power or to ensure that minority communities will be spread out so much as to dilute any voting power the community might wield. Instead of voters electing the candidate of their choice in a balanced district, state lawmakers are instead manipulating which voters will vote for them or their party to ensure they stay in power. In Oregon, state lawmakers opposed to the new maps are using this argument to try and stop the maps from going into effect. Democrats there are the majority in the state legislature and have a Democratic governor and so they were able to get the maps they wanted approved and signed by Governor Kate Brown. 

However, Oregon House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, a Republican, argued the maps were heavily gerrymandered to favor Democrats and that she is considering a lawsuit in order to have a court deem the map illegal. It is uncertain if a court would see it that way but this just shows that the traditional way of having the state legislature draw a state map is untenable and too rife with conflicts of interest to continue in this manner.

Photo taken from: The New York Times

The situation with Colorado’s drawing of the state congressional map is completely opposite from what happened in Oregon. In Colorado there are two independent redistricting commissions – one to draw the congressional map and a second one to draw the Colorado state legislative map. 

Here the Colorado state legislature has no input in how the maps are drawn and cannot veto a state map if it does not like it. Colorado has a twelve – member commission comprised of four Republicans, four Democrats and four unaffiliated members and they were able to approve a map by an 11 – 1 vote. And according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which analyzes the fairness and partisanship of states drawing legislative state maps, they have graded Colorado’s experience with an ‘A’ and said that it “should be studied closely by other states, and by friends of redistricting” for drawing “decent maps.” 

The project even noted that the partisan fairness was acceptable for not giving any advantage to either political side. This is significant because by not allowing the state legislature and governor a role in the process Colorado has been able to come up with a state map that didn’t get bogged down in accusations from one political party to another of gerrymandering. And, there have been no threats of lawsuits to have the state map invalidated. It has been a relatively smooth process as far as redistricting goes.

Photo taken from: Wikimedia

As of today only 14 states use independent redistricting commissions. But based on how Oregon and Colorado were able to come up with state maps in 2021 and what happened afterwards, it is clear that independent redistricting commissions should be the way that states redraw their legislative maps in the future. LEARN MORELEARN MORELEARN MORE

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

Princeton Gerrymander Project – group doing non – partisan analysis to understand gerrymandering at the state level.

National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) – a comprehensive report on how each state manages the redistricting process.

USC Sol Price School of Public Policy – academic research on independent redistricting commissions.

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