Get it right or give it up

Oregon's once-a-decade partisan slugfest over redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries is in full swing. Oregonians should watch carefully and, if the Legislature can't manage to agree on a new map without punting to the secretary of state and/or the courts, voters should fix the process themselves.

Every 10 years, district boundaries must be adjusted to conform to the U.S. Census, ensuring that each state legislator and member of Congress represents as close to the same number of people as possible. In the process, state laws requires that district lines incorporate existing geographic and political boundaries and preserve communities of common interest.

At the heart of the matter is control of the Legislature and the partisan balance of congressional districts, so it stands to reason that the Democrats' proposed map will favor Democrats and the Republicans' plan will favor the GOP.

Republicans drew a map that would have eight Democratic legislators sharing four districts.

The Democrats' first attempt stretched U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer's 3rd District from Rainier on the Columbia River all the way to Hood River — resulting in a shape The Oregonian described as resembling a brontosaurus.

That's not too far from the salamander-shaped state senate district maps conjured up by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812. Gerry achieved a measure of immortality when the term "gerrymandering" was coined to commemorate his technique.

To be fair, coming up with new district boundaries that meet all the legal requirements is far from simple. Tradeoffs have to be made, and it simply isn't possible to come up with a map that will satisfy everyone.

Still, there is an inherent problem with a system that lets those who hold office draw the boundaries of the districts they represent.

For an alternative approach, look either south to California or north to Washington. Both states have turned over the redistricting chore to a bipartisan commission.

Hearings under way now across California have been heated at times as voters object to this district or that one. But what's striking is that the words "Democrat" and "Republican" are not part of the dialogue. Instead, residents object when their community is lumped together with a neighboring town when the two have few interests in common.

That's the way redistricting should work.

The 2011 Oregon Legislature is the first ever with an evenly split House and a one-vote Senate majority. As a result, a spirit of bipartisan cooperation was supposed to hold sway and, for the most part, it has.

The real test will be whether the two parties can agree on a redistricting plan for the first time in 60 years. If they can't, voters should take matters into their own hands and follow the lead of neighboring states by voting to create an independent commission before the 2020 Census rolls around.

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