Peralta: Redistricting rewards partisans on both sides

Guest writer Sal Peralta harbors an enduring interest in public policy, reflected in a long record of public involvement. He helped found the Independent Party of Oregon and has long served as party secretary. He ran unsuccessfully for state representative and county commissioner before winning appointment, and later election, to the McMinnville City Council. He shares his home in McMinnville’s Ward 1 with his wife, Tanya, daughter, Bella, and two dogs. In his leisure time, he enjoys playing the violin. 


Last month, as part of the constitutionally mandated census that occurs every 10 years, the Oregon Legislature redrew Oregon’s state legislative and congressional district maps. 

But those of us hoping for more legislative maps encouraging keener competition, greater collaboration and more cross-pollination of ideas were in for disappointment.

The state legislative maps will make politics in Oregon less rather than more competitive. They will thus contribute to a deepening of Oregon’s partisan urban/rural divide, according to analysis conducted by the Campaign Legal Center, which is committed to fair redistricting.

Overall, fewer than one in five districts are expected to be competitive.

Under the new state house maps, Republicans will increase their control over rural parts of the state, including the coast, while the Democrats will solidify their control over urban parts, including the Portland metro area and Bend. The maps give Democrats slight advantages in Clackamas County, which could allow them to cement legislative gains in the populous Willamette Valley.

While the overall numbers in the Legislature aren’t likely to shift much, thus affect overall control, the lack of apparent movement masks a significant underlying realignment of Oregon politics — the near-elimination of Democratic legislators outside major population centers or Republican legislators inside them.

Four years ago, Republicans held all four Bend House and Senate seats. After the next election, Democrats will likely gain a solid grip on three of the four.

The coast, working-class blue four years ago, with five Democrats and two Republicans holding seats, figures to feature six Republicans and just one Democrat.
The casualties in these realignments, in both parties, are the political moderates.

Democratic pragmatist Marty Wilde, who formed a non-partisan caucus of Democrats and Republicans prior to the legislative session, was drawn out of a district combining rural turf with the liberal-leaning University of Oregon and into one that is primarily rural, thus safely Republican.

House Republican leader Christine Drazan, respected as a pragmatist in her caucus, was drawn into a district with a strong Democratic lean. 

Democrats Brad Witt and Brian Clem, two of only a handful of Democrats representing rural areas, were drawn into much more challenging districts. Clem resigned and Witt is expected to follow suit.

The net effect of these changes will be even more state legislative offices determined in closed party primary elections in May, rather than during the November general election, when everyone gets to participate. 

Party politics being what they are, most of those seats are not contested in the primary.

Out of 120 primary races for party nominations in the Oregon House, only 27 were contested in 2020 — less than 25% — and only six were competitive. Most of the 27 that were actually contested featured margins exceeding 2-1 for the winning candidate.  

What that means is that most of the time, in most of the state, party loyalists are actually selecting the nominee. Even when there is a meaningful primary, the winning candidate is often the top choice of a very small number of voters.

This problem is exacerbated by our political system whose primary messaging rewards polarization. 

A recent report by Cross Screen Media showed that more than $9 billion was spent in the United States on political advertising in the 2020 election. That represents a 244% increase from 2016, with social media taking up an increasingly larger share of the expenditures.

A recent study by Brookings Institution showed that this spending contributes heavily as a “key facilitator” of political polarization and intensifying political sectarianism, including violence.

We have seen this bleed over into local politics in recent years, with politicians like Mike Nearman fueling sectarian resentment to the point of facilitating an assault on the Oregon Capitol. And there are plenty of other examples.

Partisan Democratic and Republican voters represent a smaller share of voters today than ever before. 

In the late 1950s, when Oregon’s modern partisan primaries were developed, the two major parties accounted for more than 98% of Oregon voters. Today, they account for less than 60%, and the fastest growing rival segment is “none of the above.”

So, while the candidates we have to choose from reflect the interests and goals of partisan voters, who hold increasingly more insular and narrow views about the kinds of policies that the government should prioritize, most voters are less likely than ever before to share those views. Is it any wonder so many people feel frustrated?

With legislative districts drawn to partisan advantage, and fewer voters supporting that kind of framework, it’s even more important to consider structural reforms to empower the general public. Otherwise, the most partisan voices continue to hold sway.

In the past, I have recommended Oregon consider ranked-choice voting as an election model. In the few years since I last made that suggestion, voters in Alaska have replaced their state’s closed and partisan primary system for statewide, congressional and state legislative office with primary election balloting open to all voters. 

Under the Alaska model, the top four vote-getters in the primary compete in a general election allowing voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. Under such a system, winning candidates tend to be those who have a broader and less partisan appeal. 

It’s something that Oregon should consider. Something certainly needs to change.


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