From our bleacher seats in Eastern Oregon, the redistricting process can seem labored and, ultimately, futile.

Sure, we have new proposed electoral maps that reflect our state’s changing population. That means, among other things, a sixth representative in Congress.

The maps may still be challenged in court and revised. Or they may go into effect and set the parameters for Oregon elections for the next decade. We’ll know before November.

Either way, we in Eastern Oregon are still squarely in the 2nd Congressional District, which was and still is the only predictably Republican district in the state. Our representatives in the Oregon legislature will continue to serve roughly the same cities and counties.

So why get riled up? Watching the floor speeches by many Democrats, you’d think the maps were ordained by the collective spirit of the Oregon people. To hear the more outspoken Republicans tell it, Democrats have undermined every interest except their own and have doomed the state to a decade of unequal political representation.

Let’s be fair and agree the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Of course Democrats, who control both chambers and all executive seats in Oregon, baked their priorities in the new maps. And of course Republicans were going to call foul, no matter what the maps looked like.

It’s worth remembering 2001, when Republicans controlled both chambers and presented a map that Democrats deemed so unacceptable they orchestrated a walkout to prevent its passage. This put the process in the hands of Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, a Democrat, who drew up a map that Republicans opposed but failed to overturn in court. It also set a walkout precedent that still hangs over every legislative session.

All this to say, when a map is drafted by politicians, the politicians of the opposing party will oppose it. And they’ll get as much mileage out of it as they can.

But where does this leave the voters, the people who electoral districts are meant to empower?

There are public hearings to give us the opportunity to share our thoughts. There are also rules requiring the districts to follow existing boundaries, protect communities of common interest, and not to favor a party, politician, or any individual. But whether the input is heeded, and how fair the maps are, is difficult to gauge.

With a decade to go before our next predictable tussle, we have time to enlist the help of a truly impartial observer: artificial intelligence.

The old axiom goes that voters should choose their representatives and not the other way around. Inserting a neutral entity with no ties to any party or agenda is the best way to make that happen.

A.I. would be more than capable of taking in relevant data — demographic, geographic, historical — and creating maps that are evenly balanced with no concessions to individual interests. It could even pump out a hundred iterations, or a thousand, and randomly select one to serve as a base map for the public to review and comment on. If there is sufficient reason to alter the map, it would have to be done transparently.

This would account for the countless ways the state could be divided, show no preference to any of them, and give the public the first say on what the maps should look like. At the very least, it would take power away from partisan leaders and allow them to focus on legislation that we need actual humans to make.

The North Carolina Senate already took a step down this road in 2019. When ordered to redistrict badly gerrymandered maps by the state court, the legislature turned the process over to a computer algorithm that drew up 1,000 versions. Staffers selected five, which were put into a lottery drawing to randomly select the final one.

It wasn’t perfect. The final map was still contested by Democrats, and they’ve gone back to the old style of committee-drawn maps.

Oregon is a state that has shown a willingness to lead. Just look at mail-in voting. This is our opportunity to improve the system we have now, take advantage of technological efficiency, and show we’re serious about empowering voters.


Daniel Wattenburger is the former managing editor of the East Oregonian. He lives in Hermiston with his wife and children and is an account manager for Pac/West Lobby Group. Contact him at

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