A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Redistricting’s effect: Less protection, not more

Written September 19th, 2021 by Hasso Hering

The ballot drop box outside the Linn County Courthouse on Sunday. (In background, ABC House.)

Oregon voting districts are being redrawn this year. The job is loaded with politics because of Reynolds v. Sims, the 1964 Supreme Court decision that declared the equal protection clause demands that state electoral districts be as close to equal in population as practical.

To create such districts invites creativity, and politicians in power use it to make sure they and their party stay that way. (And who can blame them?) That is why Democrats in the legislature have drawn up maps that have three or four of Oregon’s six congressional districts taking in parts of the Portland area, where Democrats have a huge registration edge.

Districts for state House and Senate positions also are being changed. The 15th House district, for example, which takes in Albany and environs, is proposed to be extended northward into Marion County.

Is all this rearranging of state electoral districts necessary? Only because of the Sims decision.

The Sims case arose in Alabama, where one district in Birmingham had more than 40 times the number of people of a rural one. The plaintiffs argued this robbed them of a republican form of government. The court agreed with them and ruled 8-1 that grossly unequal districts violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the Constitution demands “no less than substantially equal state legislative representation for all citizens.” He said the right to direct representation was a “bedrock of our political system.”

If that’s so, what does the Constitution say about one-party governments like Oregon’s, where almost half the people have no representation at all because of the way a system based on carefully gerrymandered single-member districts works out?

Oregon used to have a different system of apportioning the number of legislators across the state according to population. When I started working in Oregon in 1967, the old system was still in place. I can’t remember exactly how it worked, but this may be deduced from the published returns.

In the 1968 general election, two candidates were elected in Linn County’s House District 12, Gerald Detering for Position 1 and Bill Gwinn for Position  2. Two years before, Glenn Huston was elected to the state Senate from Linn County. Walter Leth was elected to the Senate from Benton and Polk counties.

The reporting, sketchy as it was, suggests that elections followed county lines. This would have made sure office holders were closer than now to the people they represented, and it avoided redrawing lines for partisan advantage every 10 years.

Too bad Earl Warren and seven of his colleagues on the court did not foresee in ’64 that their decision would make fair representation in state politics not more likely, but less. (hh)

Postscript: On Monday the Senate passed the Democrats’ plan for new districts. In the House, the speaker appointed more Democrats to a special committee on redistricting, making sure the committee, previously evenly split with three Ds and Rs each, will pass the Democrats’ plan. 

Correction: The story has been edited to take out a mistake I made in describing he changes in House District 15.

12 responses to “Redistricting’s effect: Less protection, not more”

  1. HowlingCicada says:

    With few exceptions, every state is a red state with little dots of blue. Even Oregon. Especially Oregon.

    Here’s a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to dig into local voting patterns. I’ve wasted HOURS on these. Easy to see the interesting contrasts within Albany.

    “An Extremely Detailed Map of the 2020 Election”
    Shows counties. Zoom in to see individual precincts. Several states and areas are missing including most of Idaho.

    Same thing for 2016 — seems very complete.

    • Bob Woods says:

      Looking at land mass, correct (for the most part). Looking at population, cities in every state are far denser that the rest of the area.

      In the end, however, it’s who the people vote for, at every level of government.

  2. HowlingCicada says:

    “””The Sims case arose in Alabama, where one district in Birmingham had more than 40 times the number of people of a rural one.”””

    Ah, there you have the solution to all of our problems! One acre, one vote. When Donald Trump re-assumes office in 2025 (or whenever), he should be able to fill the Supreme Court with Justices who will reverse the Sims decision. Today, USA and Brazil. Tomorrow, the world!!! ;-) ;-) ;-)

    Actually, I have no idea if the same urban/rural divide afflicts Brazil. All I know is that Bolsonaro equals Trump times two.

  3. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    Geography vs. Total Population. It’s a conundrum.

    But the court voted 8 -1. As Chief Justice Warren said, state “legislators represent people, not trees or acres” and state “legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.”

    So the decision placed a key aspect of state politics at the mercy of the federal judiciary. State sovereignty must bow at the feet of the republic.

    And the effect is that a few large cities (Portland, Eugene, and Salem) force the many small towns and rural areas to effectively live under urban rule.

    The political party that controls the urban areas dictates the boundaries.

    The result is clearly partisan gerrymandering, but constitutional until a future SCOTUS overturns Reynolds v. Sims.

    • HowlingCicada says:

      You imply that “clearly partisan gerrymandering” in Oregon is a bad thing. Is it also bad in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas?

      • Gordon L. Shadle says:

        When one party controls the process, gerrymandering exists.

        In Oregon, like Texas, Georgia, and NC, the process is legislature-dominate.

        Gerrymandering is the natural outcome of the process. Both parties do it when they can get away with it.

        I prefer Arizona’s method: a five member non-politician commission with ultimate authority.

        But I prefer a lot of things Arizona does, for example, in 1999 they outlawed tax increment financing (can you say, CARA?). In a previous life I lived there. I miss it.

  4. Jake Jaques JJ Johnny Hartman says:

    The author laments: “…what does the Constitution say about one-party governments like Oregon’s, where almost half the people have no representation at all because of the way a system based on carefully gerrymandered single-member districts works out.”

    This argument, such as it is, would be moot if the state’s GOP (GQP) could actually find political candidates capable of being elected and capable of representing the people. Unforunately for the Oregon GQP, this has proven to be a challenging task. Good luck making inroads when all the GQP offers-up are political hacks and just plain weak candidates. This is not the fault of anyone except the Oregon GQP.

    • Abe Cee says:

      Oregon won’t be more competitive politically when one side virtually has no chance of getting a representative elected to counter the other side. There just aren’t enough people residing outside the 4 major population zones (Portland, Salem, Eugene, Bend) to offset the blue vote.

  5. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    Look, does Reynolds v. Sims really matter?

    Does it really matter how the Dems re-draw the maps and apportion the 60 House seats, 30 Senate seats, and 6 congressional seats?

    Dems enjoy a supermajority in Salem and control where the new sixth congressional district will be.

    Nobody should be surprised by the gerrymandering underway.

    And the power of incumbency is huge in a state where docile voters seem to enjoy letting their betters in Salem lead them by the nose.

    Until Oregon becomes more competitive politically, the only question is, “How much more powerful will Dems be in 2022?”

  6. hj.anony1 says:

    Will the state GQP walk out and hide to delay the re-draw?

    How testy and contentious will this get in the coming days?

    Mark your calendar for Sept 27th.

    Interest article here:


    From article: “Lawmakers must pass redistricting plans by Sept. 27, under a deadline set by the state Supreme Court. If they fail, responsibility for drawing a new congressional map would go to a panel of five judges named by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat, would get the task of drawing legislative maps.”

  7. Jim says:

    Portland has a population less the one district, but is included in four districts, in what is an clear example of gerrymandering. They had a very transparent process, requesting lots of input, and ignored it all.

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