Oregon still allows the Legislature to draw district maps, and nonpartisan analysts that track redistricting nationwide determined that the maps that took effect in 2022 disproportionately benefit Democrats. (Photo by Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Voters may get the chance to decide whether an independent commission should redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts after a proposed ballot measure cleared a significant hurdle. 

People Not Politicians, the group seeking to end legislative control of redistricting, announced Monday that a deadline for legal challenges to the proposed initiative passed last week, clearing the way for supporters to begin collecting the roughly 150,000 signatures needed to put a measure before voters in November 2024.

The group is now deciding whether the measure should apply only to legislative districts or to both legislative and congressional districts. If a measure were approved by voters in 2024, it would trigger a new round of redistricting ahead of the 2026 election.

“We’re greatly surprised, actually, that nobody filed the challenge because we thought our opponents would try to delay us whether their points about the ballot title were valid or not,” group chair Norman Turrill told the Capital Chronicle.

Turrill, who is also the president of the League of Women Voters of Oregon Advocacy Fund, said he expects labor unions and legislative leadership to step up their opposition if the measure qualifies for the 2024 ballot. He said the group would likely decide which version of the initiative to pursue by mid-December, after the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in Moore v. Harper.

The election law case out of North Carolina, which is scheduled for court arguments on Wednesday, could give state legislatures sole authority over the handling of federal elections, including congressional redistricting. The Supreme Court previously affirmed that independent redistricting commissions could draw congressional maps in the 2015 case over Arizona’s commission. 

Congressional and legislative maps are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census to ensure that every district has a roughly equal number of residents. State and federal laws impose other requirements, including that map-drawers keep districts contiguous, follow existing geographic or political boundaries like rivers or county lines and avoid drawing maps that minimize the electoral power of racial or ethnic minorities or benefit incumbents or political parties.

“One of the strongest criteria is that they’re not supposed to cross any geographic boundaries,” Turrill said. “For the congressional districts, in this most recent map, they crossed the Cascade Mountains three times. That’s probably the biggest geographic barrier in the state.”

Most Western states already use independent redistricting commissions. The Oregon proposal calls for a 12-person commission, with four members from each of the two largest political parties and four who are nonaffiliated or with minor parties. At least one person from each group would have to support a map. 

Oregon still allows the Legislature to draw district maps, and nonpartisan analysts that track redistricting nationwide determined that the maps that took effect in 2022 disproportionately benefit Democrats. 

Supporters tried to get a measure onto the ballot this year, but they were stymied by the Oregon Supreme Court. Before supporters of proposed voter-enacted laws can begin gathering the petition signatures needed to put a measure on the ballot, the attorney general must write a ballot title and summary.

Anyone who doesn’t like that title can complain to the Oregon Supreme Court. Our Oregon, a political nonprofit primarily funded by labor unions that supports Democratic policies, sued over the ballot title of the measure the group wanted to get on November’s ballot.

The Supreme Court, which previously upheld the legislatively drawn maps against gerrymandering charges, unanimously agreed with Our Oregon’s complaint that a ballot title needed to emphasize that passing the measure would repeal the redistricting plan the Legislature passed last year. 

The ballot title Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum crafted made clear that the effort would result in redistricting in 2025. 

Legal challenges

The campaign is among several proposed ballot initiatives that aim to make government work better, and several are mired in legal challenges. 

Campaign finance reform advocates who couldn’t get measures on the ballot this year have proposed one to limit campaign contributions and require more disclosure of who pays for political ads. A second proposal would prohibit the Legislature and local governments from changing voter-approved campaign finance laws without a three-quarters vote. 

Supporters of the campaign finance measures objected to Rosenblum’s ballot titles, as did conservative and progressive opponents of the measure. 

League of Women Voters President Rebecca Gladstone, Portland attorney Jason Kafoury and David Delk, a former progressive candidate for Congress, are the chief petitioners behind Honest Elections Oregon, the group backing the campaign finance reform measure. In October, they petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court to change a ballot title to make it clear that voter-enacted campaign laws could also be changed by referring the laws to the ballot and not solely by a three-quarters or supermajority vote. 

In a separate complaint, the three seek to reword a ballot title to specify that political ads must specify their largest contributors. They also want a clear description of current campaign finance laws in a section that explains what voting “no” would mean.

Angela Wilhelms, the CEO of Oregon Business and Industry and a former Republican congressional staffer, sued in October over the title of the more substantive campaign finance measure, arguing that it should specify that only certain nonprofits, including the one she works for, would be barred from giving candidates money. 

And a trio of progressive opponents of the measures, including Christy Mason, deputy director of Our Oregon; labor organizer Lamar Wise; and lobbyist Michael Selvaggio, have filed multiple Supreme Court complaints. They’re seeking court intervention to declare that it’s unclear which campaign finance laws could only be changed by a supermajority vote, among other revisions.

Mason also objected to the ballot titles for two attempts to enact STAR voting, an acronym for Score Then Automatic Runoff. It would have voters rate candidates from one to five to indicate their level of support. Mason objected to the use of the word “stars” in a ballot title. 

Separately, a group known as All Oregon Votes is gathering its 1,000 initial signatures to begin the initiative process to make primary elections open to all voters. And Antonio Sunseri, a Progressive Party candidate who lost to Republican state Rep. Mark Owens, is doing the same with a measure that would expand the Oregon House to 300 representatives.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle

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.