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Redistricting Needs Revised Rules

September 17th, 2021 by dk

Oregon Governor Kate Brown has called lawmakers back to Salem on Monday for a special session to deal with redistricting. The Legislature must submit state and federal district maps by Sept. 27. Time is of the essence.

ORS 188.010 delineates five criteria to be used when redrawing the districts, and two that cannot be used. Unfortunately, the guiding statute mixes factors that are quantitative with others that are qualitative. No one can argue with the first set and no one will agree with the second set.

Legislators should be more specific about their considerations than the law requires. Take the first criterion, for example. Each districts must contain the same number of people. It’s very unlikely that the districts will be exactly equivalent. How close must they be? The law’s language — “as nearly as practicable” — is no help. Legislators should specify in advance the maximum deviation they will consider.

The second criteria will attract no debate, but it should. (More on that later.) Each district must be contiguous. Once inside the district, you should be able to get anywhere else in the district without stepping outside it. Third, district boundaries should maintain transportation links, which foreshadows the difficulty to be faced with the fourth and fifth factors.

Legislative boundaries must not divide communities of common interest or be designed to dilute the voting strength of any “language or ethnic minority group.” Good luck finding any agreement between Democrats and Republicans on how this factor should be interpreted or measured. It gets worse.

The final standard to be upheld (and its accompanying prohibition) is the most fraught of all. District boundaries should utilize existing geographic or political boundaries. And yet they cannot be drawn for the purpose of favoring a political party or incumbent. Got that? Utilize political boundaries; don’t favor any political party.

It pains me to say this, but we need fewer English majors and more math nerds writing these rules. “Political boundaries,” “communities of common interest,” and even “transportation links” become terms of art once deliberation begins.

Thankfully, ORS 188.010 does not limit the process to this handful of factors. Lawmakers are free to adopt others as well, especially if they serve to better define the standards listed above. How about adding two more that will enhance the second and third criteria?

We know from generations of gerrymandering that all districts are contiguous, but some are more contiguous than others. To keep districts as compact as possible, each plan should calculate the length of each boundary’s perimeter. Add all the perimeter lengths together and favor the plan with the lowest number.

Transportation links served a useful purpose before citizens communicated primarily without roads or even wires.”Who is my neighbor?” is once again open for discussion. The factor is still worth considering if it can be measured indisputably. I suggest using Google Maps to calculate the longest timed walk between two points inside each district.

As with perimeter lengths, aggregating the maximum cross-district walk times will allow decision-makers to compare redistricting plans. Which proposed map makes the most sense on the ground, literally?


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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