Redistricting initiatives face tight deadline to make ballot

June 23, 2020 GMT

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Fighting through coronavirus hurdles, activists in several states are racing to gather thousands of petition signatures in the coming days for proposed ballot initiatives seeking to overhaul the way legislative voting districts are drawn for the next decade.

Redistricting reform advocates face a July 2 deadline in Oregon to turn in enough signatures to qualify their proposal for the November election. Initiative supporters face a July 6 deadline in Arkansas and North Dakota, and an Aug. 3 cutoff in Nevada.

All states must redraw their voting districts for the U.S. House and state legislative chambers based on the results of this year’s census. In many states, that task will be done in 2021 by state lawmakers and governors.

Reform advocates want to transfer that job to independent commissions to try to diminish the potential for elected officials to gerrymander districts to their political advantage.

“This is really a make or break moment for Oregonians to enact a fair and transparent process in time for the 2021 redistricting,” Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, said during a Tuesday news conference featuring redistricting reform advocates from numerous states.

At least 17 states already have adopted measures that either shift the redistricting process to special commissions or establish other procedures intended to diminish the potential for partisan gerrymandering.

This year’s initiative efforts were altered by coronavirus precauations. Mass events, which are fertile ground for petition circulators, were canceled, and in-person petition gathering was suspended.

To abide by social distancing, Oregon activists mailed petition signature forms to about a half-million households that each had at least two registered voters, Titus said. They have been getting back thousands of signed petitions daily.

But “at this point,” she said, “it’s really too hard to tell” whether organizers will meet the deadline for the 149,360 valid signatures needed for the proposed constitutional amendment.

Arkansas activists are planning drive-up petition signing events around the state this weekend to try to get the needed 89,151 valid signatures, said Bonnie Miller, chair of Arkansas Voters First, which is backing the initiative.

Supporters of the North Dakota initiative, which combines the redistricting overhaul with other election changes, have gathered more than 18,000 petition signatures so far, said Carol Sawicki, president of North Dakota Voters First. They need 26,904 by the deadline.

Nevada petitioners would have faced a Wednesday deadline to submit the 97,598 valid signatures needed to place a redistricting measure on the ballot, but it was pushed back to early August after organizers sued.

Initiative supporters are now trying to persuade Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak to issue an executive order allowing electronic petition signatures, said Sondra Cosgrove, president of the League of Women Voters of Nevada.

“If we’re not allowed to use electronic signatures, we’re going to violate the governor’s order to socially distance and we’re going to host some big events in every one of the petition districts so that we can get enough signatures,” Cosgrove told the AP.

Redistricting measures also will appear on the ballot this year in Virginia and Missouri after being placed there by state lawmakers.

The Virginia measure would create a bipartisan commission to draw legislative districts. The Missouri measure would reverse key parts of a 2018 voter-approved constitutional amendment by eliminating a nonpartisan demographer position and bumping “partisan fairness” to the bottom of the priority list for the bipartisan commissions in charge of approving new maps.

Redistricting reform advocates had pursued an initiative in Oklahoma but have effectively run out of time to get it on the ballot because of legal challenges and coronavirus restrictions on circulating petitions, said Andy Moore, executive director with People Not Politicians.