Everyone always talks about redistricting, but what is it like to actually do it? Oregon political consultant Kari Chisholm joins us on this week’s episode of The Downballot to discuss his experience as a member of Portland’s new Independent District Commission, a panel of citizens tasked with creating the city’s first-ever map for its city council. Kari explains why Portland wanted to switch from at-large elections to a district-based system; how new multi-member districts could boost diversity on the council; and the commission’s surprisingly effective efforts to divide the city into four equal districts while heeding community input.
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also recap yet another New Hampshire special election that saw Democrats overperform district baselines—and why Republicans should be worried about an even bigger special in September. (You can click here to donate to Democrat Hal Rafter in that race.) They then discuss why a new Democratic recruit could help put Florida’s Senate race in play and highlight another effort to put abortion on the ballot in 2024 in a very red state: Nebraska.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
David Beard: Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.
David Nir: And I’m David Nir, political Director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency from Senate to city council. Please subscribe to The Downballot on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.
Beard: We’ve got some really interesting topics to talk about this week.
Nir: Hell yeah, we do. There was yet another big overperformance by Democrats in a special election. We’re going to dive into that. Democrats also landed their preferred recruit in a key Senate race that might give them a chance to actually flip a Republican-held seat. And then there is another state that could wind up voting on abortion rights in 2024, and it’s a very red state. Lots to talk about!
Our guest this week is Kari Chisholm, a long-time political operative from the state of Oregon who recently served on the new independent district commission in his home city of Portland, which for the first time ever is going to move from having at-large elections for its city council, to elections by districts. Kari is going to give us great insight into what it’s like to actually participate in the districting process as a private citizen.
We have a fantastic episode of “The Downballot” coming up for you. Let’s get rolling!
So Beard, there’s that scene at the start of Groundhog Day where Bill Murray wakes up and he thinks that the local radio station is just replaying the previous day’s tape. And of course, it’s the start of his nightmare, but it’s the exact opposite here. And I promise you, we are not just airing a segment about Democrats overperforming in a special election.
Beard: I mean, if this is our Groundhog Day, I don’t want to leave it. I’ll just keep winning these special elections forever.
Nir: Well, I think it probably does feel like Groundhog Day for New Hampshire Republicans because it is the same old story for them. On Tuesday night in a special election in the vacant 16th state House District in Grafton County, Democrat David Fracht crushed his Republican opponent, John Keane, by a 72 to 28 margin. Now, this was already quite a blue seat, and when you have these really blue seats or really red seats, it’s pretty hard to actually beat the top of the ticket. There’s just not that much room for growth, but Fracht managed to do so anyway. Biden won this district 64 to 34, actually with a little bit of rounding. It comes out to a 31-point margin. Fracht won by 44 points, so that’s a 13-point overperformance in an already blue district.
It’s very easy to write off a single special election. But this is now the third special election that New Hampshire has had this year for the state House and Democrats have outperformed the 2020 presidential numbers in all three of them. There just hasn’t been a single piece of good news for Republicans in any of these elections. And it’s also a good omen for Democrats ahead of the big, big special on September 19th that we’ve talked about before. This is the race for a very, very swingy GOP-held seat in Rockingham County. Democrat Hal Rafter is running. He is taking on an absolute lunatic, Jim Guzofski. If you were listening a few weeks ago, then you remember that Guzofski is the pastor who claimed that people are fighting so hard to preserve abortion rights because they know blood sacrifices to their god, Molech. Anyway.
Beard: Of course, of course.
Nir: Obviously that is what motivates me every day; I wake up when I get out of bed. I mean, people say, “Oh, so-and-so’s having a normal one.” Guzofski has a normal one every day.
Beard: Yeah, yeah.
Nir: And so as we’ve said on “The Downballot” before, if Democrats flip that seat, the one that’s coming up on September 19th, and then they hold another solidly blue seat in November, then that means the GOP will no longer have a majority in the state House. It’ll be tied 199 to 199. Now, as we’ve said before, it’s very unclear exactly what would happen next, whether the speakership would come up for election again, whether there’d be some kind of power-sharing agreement.
But once again, in the 400-member New Hampshire house where you get paid a hundred dollars a year, or is it a hundred dollars every cycle, you get paid nothing to show up. And so what matters is who actually attends each session of the floor on any given day. And Democrats have had a number of occasions where they have had command of the floor, despite ostensibly being in the minority. So the more seats the better. Right now it’s 199 to 197. And who knows, the next day they have a session. Maybe Democrats show up with more seats.
Beard: Yeah, and a couple of points… one, on these New Hampshire special elections, yes, it’s true that these are often very small elections, a thousand voters, something like that, and one isolated special election you wouldn’t want to put much stock in. But as you said, this is the third of three elections where we’ve seen this overperformance.
We’ve also seen overperformances in other special elections across the country, not a hundred percent, but the vast majority of special election results this year have been Democratic overperformances, not Republican overperformances. So in that context, that gives this to be another piece of evidence for the idea that Democrats are overperforming are doing well in this 2023 environment.
The other point that I want to make about New Hampshire specifically is that it’s a very high-education state. It’s a state that’s very pro-choice. We saw last fall that Democrats did really well in the competitive races. The Senate race, both of the House races… they did lose the Governor’s race, but that was not really seen as competitive at that point. And so with these special elections, it really seems like Democrats are in a really good position in New Hampshire, particularly with an open governor’s seat next year.
Nir: And to your point about these races being small, that is a huge upside for one particular group, and that’s grassroots donors. Daily Kos previously endorsed Hal Rafter, and if you want to help him, this is a race where small grassroots donations will go really, really far. The election on Tuesday night that we were just talking about: that was like 600 votes total. Maybe a thousand people will wind up voting in the September 19th race, the really big one. And if you want to help Hal Rafter’s campaign, we will put a donation link in the show notes. Every little bit counts. Everyone always says that, but really five or 10 bucks, these races are going to be won and lost based on relatively small budgets, especially compared to the House and Senate elections or the Presidential election, my God, that all get so much attention. If you want to get excellent bang for your buck, there is no better place than a state House special election in New Hampshire.
Beard: Now to go from a race where you’ll get a real bang for your buck with a very small donation, to a race that will likely cost millions in millions and millions of dollars. Let’s talk about the upcoming Florida Senate race next year. Now, Democratic offensive targets in the Senate are extremely slim pickings; it’s basically Texas and Florida. They’re the only states that are held by Republicans that are seen as even remotely competitive. Everything else that’s held by Republicans, that cycle is basically seen as safe Republican.
But in better news, Democrats have at least landed decent recruits in these pretty difficult states. Representative Colin Allred announced for Texas Senate back in April, and now former representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell has announced a challenge to incumbent GOP Senator Rick Scott. Now, both of these candidates are going to have primaries on the Democratic side, but Allred and Mucarsel-Powell, who’s often known as DMP, are both clearly the favorites of establishment Democrats, and I think they’re pretty likely to be the nominees. DMP was first elected to Congress in 2018. She represented the Florida Keys and the southwestern Miami area before losing narrowly in 2020.
Now, Rick Scott, the incumbent GOP Senator, who I’m sure many of you know about, he’s used his millions of dollars to win the following races by the following margins. In 2010, he ran for the first time, he won the governor’s election in a GOP year in Florida, 49% to 48%. In 2014, another GOP year, he won reelection as governor by a margin of 48% to 47%. In 2018, when he ran for Senate in a more Democratic year, he won 50.06% to 49.93%. So he is not exactly a powerhouse of Florida politics here.
And that makes sense because before running for office, Scott was known for being the CEO of a company that defrauded Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal programs, which led to the largest healthcare fraud settlement in history at that time. So he’s a pretty terrible guy. Since being a Senator, he’s proposed sunsetting Social Security and Medicare, which even caused a bunch of his fellow Republicans to run in terror at the concept. And he was pretty broadly seen as a terrible NRSC leader where he ran the Republican Senate campaigns during the 2022 elections. Of course, in those campaigns, Democrats managed to pick up a seat in what was expected to be a pretty Republican year.
So, obviously DMP: promising candidate. Scott: terrible person, not a very good candidate, though he is of course a millionaire. But the problem is that Florida is still Florida. It’s a state that’s turned right in recent years, and also I think seems more amenable to Trump and Trumpism than a lot of the other purple states.
So DMP is going to need a ton of money just to run a competitive campaign here, and there’s no promise that even if she gets that money, that the race is going to get there just because of the way Florida is trending right now. But given Scott’s weaknesses and the lack of other offensive targets for Democrats, I don’t think we can write off the race at this point. I think we have to give it a good go and see where we end up next year.
Nir: There is one other very interesting thing about Mucarsel-Powell’s candidacy, which is she is from Ecuador. She was born there. She was actually the first immigrant ever from South America to win a seat in Congress. And believe it or not, she would also be the first Latina that Democrats have ever nominated for statewide office in Florida. Now, of course, as “Downballot” listeners well know, many Latino voters fled the Democratic Party in recent years and were a key reason for poor Democratic performances, particularly in Florida in 2020 and beyond. Can the fact that DMP is Latina alone reverse that trend? No, that’s certainly not going to be enough. But at the very least, I do think her background matters in being able to get a fair hearing, and this stuff is actually important. And I think that was probably a key reason why Democrats were interested in having her run.
And also she did win a very difficult race in 2018. She ousted an incumbent, and yes, she lost two years later, but again, she lost in Florida in a year that just simply wasn’t good for Florida Democrats. So yeah, like you said Beard, Democrats have to give this one a shot. My fear is that because it’s so expensive to run Senate races in both Florida and Texas, and we are playing so much defense that there might be a bit of a chicken and egg problem. What I’m hoping is that we see some polls showing Scott vulnerable that really help DMP raise the money she needs to get over that credibility hump and then to have the big money flowing after that.
Beard: Yeah, I think we’ll definitely need to see DMP come in with some really good fundraising reports. The national party is not going to come in and do this for her. They’re going to want to see that she can raise big money and then see something competitive, and then they may come in. And that’s got to be the path to victory here.
And I do think, obviously for any Democrat to be competitive in the short to medium term, we’ve got to reverse the losses that we’ve seen in the past four years with Latinos in Florida. And I think obviously she’s somebody who could do that. We don’t know how it’s going to play out. We have seen some progress for Democrats in a few spots in the state, most notably of course, in the Jacksonville area where Democrat Donna Deegan won that mayor’s race that had traditionally been a more Republican area. So there is some progress in some pockets, but the Latino vote is just too big and too important in Florida, not to be able to put the seat in play without reversing some of those losses.
Nir: The other thing about fundraising for her is that if I were going to run against any Republican Senator in the world, I’d want to run against Ted Cruz obviously. But if I had to pick number two, Rick Scott is a really close number two, and Allred raised an unbelievable sum in his first quarter in the race, and everyone remembers those monster, monster fundraising quarters that Beto O’Rourke kept putting together in 2018, but in the off year in 2017, he wasn’t raising Allred money. And so if that is the model for running against an absolutely hated Republican, then I think that she, hopefully, can pull in a lot of money. Scott is just so appalling. There was some Mitch McConnell ally giving a blind quote calling Scott an assclown in some Beltway publication. They freaking hate him too. If it weren’t for the fact that it would mean giving up a Senate seat, I actually feel like Mitch McConnell would be pretty happy to see Rick Scott just disappear off the face of the earth.
Beard: Oh, absolutely. And when Mitch McConnell and his team are like, “This guy’s awful,” it’s real low. It’s lowest of the low. I’m not sure you can get any lower than Ted Cruz and Rick Scott.
Nir: Yeah, that’s like when Richard Nixon said that Barbara Bush is a woman who knows how to hate. That’s the authority.
Nir: All right, one last story we want to wrap up with. Another state could wind up voting on a ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights next year, and that is Nebraska, a very red state. Now, it’s very preliminary. Organizers have just filed paperwork to establish a campaign organization and advocates are still formulating language for this potential ballot measure. They’re also, at the same time, pursuing a lawsuit trying to strike down the state’s new 12-week abortion ban that was passed earlier this year.
But they’re also worried that Republicans might pass a six-week ban. And in fact, the GOP already came very close to doing so. They failed earlier this year by just a single vote because one Republican lawmaker who wanted a 12-week ban refused to join in their effort to break a Democratic filibuster over the six-week ban. But you never ever want to trust something as important as abortion rights to the good graces of a single Republican lawmaker deciding that he prefers a slightly less harsh ban.
So who knows, Republicans could very well pass a worse ban if not this year or next year, then in 2025 if they pick up more seats in the legislature. If organizers do go forward, they would need to gather 123,000 signatures by next July. That’s equivalent to 10% of all registered voters statewide.
There’s also a geographic distribution requirement that would mean they would need to gather signatures and at least 38 of the state’s, 93 counties. Now, polling has shown that Nebraska voters have not been supportive of the GOP’s abortion restrictions, but we don’t really know the inverse story yet. We haven’t really seen polls showing whether Nebraska voters are prepared to embrace enshrining abortion rights into the state constitution. And this is a very conservative state. Trump won here by almost 20 points. I think we’ll probably have to wait to actually see ballot language before we see real polling on what voters think.
But you’ve also got to believe that if organizers are actually going to move forward with this, that they’ve conducted polling themselves and that they believe that they can get an abortion amendment passed because no one wants to go into this and spend the huge amount of time and money and effort on a campaign like this if you don’t have good reason to think you can win.
Beard: I think given what we saw in 2022 with the impressive showing of many of the votes around abortion in multiple states, I think you can go into almost any state in the country and at least have a shot. That doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed by any means. You’ve got to run a campaign, and you’ve got to see how people respond to the specific ballot language, but I think it’s absolutely worth trying even in a state like Nebraska.
Nir: Yeah, and as we’ve mentioned before on “The Downballot,” there are a number of other efforts underway. Of course in Ohio, they’re voting this November, but next year activists are trying to put measures on the ballot in Arizona, Florida, Missouri, and South Dakota. It’s possible we could even see a few more states added to the mix. Beard, I’m curious for your opinion on something. I was having drinks this week with a colleague who asked my opinion on whether having these measures on the ballot next year might have any spillover effects that could help Democrats on the ticket. And I’m really not sure; obviously Arizona and Florida seem like the most enticing possibilities, but what’s your feel on that?
Beard: I definitely think they could. I think we’re talking about pretty marginal effects. I’m pretty confident that they wouldn’t hurt on the margin. So I think it’s totally fine to say we’re going to put it on the ballot and it’ll either do nothing or it’ll help the Democrats who are also on the ballot. So there are no negative concerns there, I don’t think. But could I see folks who are not very plugged into the Senate election, get motivated by the abortion votes and then go and vote Democrats in other parts of the ticket? Yes. The thing, of course, that we need to remember about 2024 is that it is a presidential election. We expect turnout to be very high anyway. And so it may be that that all puts it into a wash, where the presidential turnout is so motivating that there’s not a big difference there.
On the other hand, if it is Biden and Trump, not that we’re going to get into that, but some people could be otherwise turned off by that being a rerun of 2020. Maybe they’re thinking about not voting and the abortion vote is what gets them out. So I could see it go either way, but I definitely don’t think it’s a negative, so we might as well.
Nir: I think that it could definitely be a positive. And even if it’s very small, just think about how close Arizona was in 2020, and also one race that I just keep thinking about a lot is the Kansas Governor’s race last year. The GOP had that ballot measure in the summertime, much like their cousins in Ohio trying to restrict abortion rights in the middle of summer, and it wound up totally biting them in the ass. And then Democrat Laura Kelly won reelection as governor a few months later in a midterm where Democrats controlled the White House, a year where we should have gotten completely wrecked.
And I can’t prove it. I don’t have data at my fingertips. I’m not even sure you really could come up with definitive data, but I’ve got to believe that there were some voters who came out to vote to shoot down that GOP abortion measure, who then decided to also vote for Laura Kelly a few months later, and maybe they weren’t going to do so previously.
In this case, we have the elections at the exact same day, so it’s even less of a lift. You’re not showing up on two separate occasions. I feel that this could help bring in occasional voters, people who might not commonly participate in elections. And if they do, it’s hard to see those sorts of people deciding, “Well, you know what? I also really dig Rick Scott.”
Beard: Yeah, exactly. I do also think it’s good to have something to organize around that is not just the next general election. I think to be able to reach out to folks and be like, “We need to collect signatures. We need to get this on the ballot. We need to talk to our friends and neighbors about this important issue,” so people don’t have to just go with a candidate button and go canvas for their candidate. So it can be different. It can be in the off year, the work can continue and I think that can be good and that can spur positive things for the movement writ large.
Nir: Absolutely. And remembering back to 2004, part of the reason why Republicans put all these measures on the ballot across the country to ban same-sex marriage was because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that it would help them win the presidential race. And it was super, super cynical, super disgusting. Of course, once again, as they love to do, rolling back people’s rights in this case — in most cases preemptively, because same-sex marriage was really only a thing in Massachusetts at the time — and Bush won. George Bush won a very close election, and I’ve seen analyses going both ways on that one, but I’m sure Republicans were absolutely glad to have that rallying cry. Now, in this case, we’re talking about restoring rights and there’s nothing cynical about these ballot measures. They’re very positive and affirming. And I definitely would prefer to have one of these on the ballot with me if I’m a Democrat running anywhere in 2024.
Beard: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true.
Nir: Well, that does it for our weekly hits. Coming up, we are going to be talking with longtime Oregon political operative, Kari Chisholm, about his experience serving on Portland’s new commission to create, for the first time ever, districts for its city council. We are getting some real insight into how citizen redistricting works. Please stay with us. It is a fascinating interview.
Joining us today on “The Downballot” is one of my favorite people in politics. Kari Chisholm is a longtime political consultant in Oregon. But more importantly, and the reason why we’re having him on the show today, is he is one of 13 Portland residents who serves on the city’s independent district commission that is transitioning the way that Portland elects its city council, by switching from at-large elections to using geographic districts. Kari, thank you so much for coming on “The Downballot.”
Kari Chisholm: I am happy to be here. I’m a big fan of your podcasts and, of course, everything that happens at Daily Kos Elections, for years. That’s the only daily newsletter I read.
Nir: Well, the feeling is certainly mutual, and I have to say, many of the best Oregon-related tidbits in the newsletter have come directly from you. So we owe you just huge thanks for so many years of feeding us the best information on Oregon.
Chisholm: You bet. I will attempt to claim credit where that’s awesome and completely deny credit where I may have scooped on something that I shouldn’t have.
Nir: That’s exactly the right approach. So let’s dive into this new independent district commission. Why don’t you just start by giving our listeners a background of how this desire to change Portland’s approach to its city council came about and what the reasoning and motivation behind it all was?
Chisholm: To start, the first thing that folks need to understand is that Portland has had, since 1913, a very unusual city council structure. It was common a century ago, but now Portland is the only city in America with what’s known as the commission form of government. So we have four members of the city council and a mayor. They’re all elected citywide, and the members of the city council, in addition to being part of a legislative body, they’re also the chief executives of agencies. So you might be a city council member and you’re the agency administrator for the Parks Bureau or the fire department or the sewer department.
The only power the mayor has, other than being one of those five council members, is that he or she gets to decide which council members get which bureaus and agencies, which has a certain level of power to it. And he also proposes the budget. But then they all wrangle. And the challenge is that there are lots of problems in a city that are cross-agency, cross-bureau. Our homelessness problem right now is a parks issue and a law enforcement issue and a fire issue and relates to all the other city agencies. And so you tend to have this fighting amongst the agencies about who’s responsible for what. And so what we’re doing now, voters approved in 2022 a charter reform — the city equivalent of a constitutional amendment — to change our form of government. This was the seventh time we’ve tried to change it and the first time it’s been successful. And what we’re doing now is going to go from four members of the council plus the mayor to 12 members of the council, plus the mayor.
On the mayor side, we’re going to have a city administrator who will be the chief operating officer, if you will, of every agency in the city. The city council will be purely legislative. Those 12 members of the council will be elected from four districts, three members from each of those four districts, and they’ll be elected in a ranked-choice voting context. So we’re going from a system that no other major city in America has, to a new system that no other major city in America will have — only in Portlandia.
Nir: The current system, the one you’re getting rid of, it almost sounds like a parliamentary system where you get elected to the Parliament and then the Prime Minister hands out portfolios to various ministers.
Chisholm: Yeah, only they’re not all from the same party, and so you tend to have sort of fighting amongst themselves. Yeah, for sure.
Beard: Well, it certainly seems like you’re going from one of the oldest forms of governing a city to one of the new most forward-looking ways, so that’s definitely a positive. But I do want to get into — before we get into these new districts that you’ve helped create on this commission — sort of the reasoning behind going to four districts and 12 members as opposed to something like 12 districts and 12 members, which I think is a more typical city council situation and also, of course, the decision to go into ranked-choice voting to elect those three members. So just tell us a little bit more about why that was, the reform that was proposed, and why people ended up supporting it.
Chisholm: Yeah, so if you had, let’s say 12 members, 12 districts, or any number of districts, what you’d have is folks of course would be elected with 50% plus one of the vote. And the reasoning behind the ranked-choice voting system is the idea that we want to have, that the folks who proposed this and the voters who then voted for it, we’re looking to create more diversity. And in all kinds of ways, Portland historically has been known around the country as one of the whitest cities in America. That’s actually not quite true. It’s what it is. It’s one of the least Black cities in America. We have large populations of Latino/Hispanic voters, Asian American voters, some Native American populations here as well. But largely those ethnic and racial minority groups are fairly well-dispersed throughout the city. Not perfectly well-dispersed, but it’s not segregated in the way you might say about Atlanta or Detroit.
And the challenge becomes how do you create more diversity on our city council? Historically, it’s been a council where though it’s a large city, almost all of the city council members come from half a dozen neighborhoods or so close to the central city, and through the more upper-income neighborhoods. In fact, a solid 25% of the city lives on the eastern edge of the city, east of the I-205 freeway. And yet in our 110 years of this particular form of government, only two members of the city council have ever been elected from that part of the city, the first one in 2002 and the second one just a few years ago. And so you’ve got a big part of the city that has been disenfranchised and has felt largely disconnected from City Hall.
So you go to the districts and the opportunity there, we’ll talk about the maps in a moment, was to give representation to parts of the city that didn’t have it. Then within those districts, make it possible through a ranked-choice voting system to give representation to smaller groups of people. I want to be specific about the point here. When you’re electing three people in a rank choice voting environment where you’re going to say, look at 15 candidates and you’re going to vote, you’re going to rank the top six of them, and the top three get elected.
What it means is that the first person to get elected is the candidate that has 25% plus one of first choice votes on the ballot. Obviously, if no one does, you go through the whole ranked-choice voting thing. But essentially the three people who will be elected will be the three people who get 25% plus one of the ballots of the vote.
Of course, the fourth-place person will be the person who has 25% minus three, so they fell short. That has been relatively controversial in Portland. This question of should you require 50% plus one to get elected, or is this 25% plus one concept something that will undermine the community cohesiveness or will it create diversity of outcome that will enhance the community representation and cohesiveness?
Beard: So in terms of diversity, and we talked a little bit about racial diversity just there in terms of political parties, obviously Portland is a very progressive city overall. Do you expect that this new system to go towards electing either left-wing party candidates or alternatively maybe Republicans from one of the more conservative districts that maybe could get a Republican to 25% but couldn’t get them to 50?
Chisholm: Yeah, so the first thing to know is that there is not a single voting precinct in Portland that has more Republicans than Democrats. There’s exactly one where they’re tied literally 12 people of each, 12 Democrats, 12 Republicans. And so this wasn’t really a partisan exercise. Portland will elect Democrats to the entire city council. It is possible this 25% plus one zone that you could see, in the eastern district, a Republican. I think that is possible. I think the folks who propose this charter reform, who’ve been its strongest advocates really believe that it’s going to move the city council to the left to create representation and elect people from the less wealthy neighborhoods across the city.
I do think, however, that perhaps one unintended consequence, much like 18-year-olds voting for Nixon after we got the 18-year-old vote, will be that we’ll elect a Republican from that eastern district. I also don’t think that necessarily would be a bad thing that of the 12 members of the council, we have one Republican. It might create some interesting dynamics on the city council that might be helpful from a policy perspective — a radical thing for a Democratic political consultant to say.
Nir: This is being recorded Kari, you realize that?
Chisholm: I’ve said that in public hearings as well.
Nir: So let’s back up a bit and talk about the process of becoming involved with this commission and how you applied for it. And also, one thing in particular that I’m interested in is a lot of times these sorts of commissions, they often prohibit or limit involvement by folks who’ve been involved as political professionals. Obviously that wasn’t an impediment here, so tell us all about that.
Chisholm: So this independent district commission is charged with developing the map. It is not an advisory commission. If nine of the 13 members could agree on a single map, that map became law and there’s no opportunity for the city council to override it. They could be of course struck down by a court or something, but we were tasked with doing the job. I understand they had about 350 applicants for these 13 spots. We were then appointed — the 13 of us were chosen by the mayor of Portland, and then confirmed by city council. I will say that the 13 folks, none of whom I knew in advance, are the most diverse group of 13 people I’ve ever worked with and one of the most effective groups of people I’ve ever worked with.
And when I say diverse, I mean gender diversity, racial diversity, what neighborhood they’re from, incredibly skilled group of people, lots of executive directors and other community leaders, but also there were some older retired folks, there were some youth activists. We definitely had this extraordinary cross-section of Portlanders jumping in to do this work. And it was truly extraordinary to see folks come together in a way, and everybody was constructive. We had lots of disagreements, but it was always done with an eye toward trying to find consensus and to disagree in a way that was kind and compassionate and really solution-oriented.
Beard: Now, once you’ve gotten on this commission, there’s 13 of you, and you’re not just working totally free, you’ve been given sort of a set of instructions, I assume. What were the parameters that you were led to create these districts on? Because you think, “Oh, let’s create four districts in a city.” Seems pretty straightforward. You just put some lines down. It’s only four, but it’s actually a ton of different options here in front of you.
Chisholm: Right. So we’re of course obligated to follow the US Constitution, federal law, a state constitution, state law, and the city charter. And that boils down to some basic criteria. As with all redistricting, the districts have to be contiguous, compact, I should say contiguous — maybe not Wisconsin, but everywhere else — contiguous, compact, with equal population within a margin of error and as nearly as practicable as possible to not divide communities of interest. And it’s that community of interest question that becomes a really interesting, challenging one. Historically across the country that has meant racial minority voting. And that was certainly the case here.
We looked at those criteria, but also, what else is a community of interest? Are we talking about neighborhoods, particularly neighborhoods? And importantly, we have a very strong neighborhood association system that actually is engaged by the city in a community feedback kind of way. And they’re the most organized groups across the city to provide feedback up to city council.
But what else? What other communities of interest? I became very focused in the midst of our affordable housing crisis of thinking about renters and realizing that renters are one community of interest that are geographically constrained largely. There are some neighborhoods that are 70% renters, and there are neighborhoods that are 10% renters. And I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how can we make sure that renters, which do map onto younger, less white, and largely lower-income — how can we make sure that renters get appropriate representation? And so that really wrestling with that question of what are the communities of interest? And really down to some fine-grained stuff.
At one point, some of those initial maps, every map had a boundary along Columbia Boulevard, which is a street along the northern part of the city near the airport. And we had local residents say to us, Hey, look, there’s a lot of problems with homeless encampments and drug abuse on the north side of Columbia Boulevard. As people who live on the south side of Columbia Boulevard, we’d love to have both sides of that street in the same city council district so that we can talk to our city council member about those challenges. That kind of fine-grained community feedback was really critical to the line-drawing process.
Nir: Kari, when was the commission created and when did you first actually start working? And how did you get from that point to actually completing the map? And also when will this new map first go into use?
Chisholm: We were appointed, boy, I think it was mid-January or thereabouts, and we started to come together in early February. And of course, I’m a map nerd or redistricting nerd, so I knew a lot of how this was going to go. But a lot of the members of commission are highly talented, skilled people with great networks, but had never really explored this. So there was an effort first to get ourselves educated on those rules. What does contiguous mean? What does compact mean? Just what is the margin of error on equal population? And then some time spent really understanding what are the data sets, what should we be looking at in terms of the census data, which of course is the core data, but other kinds of data, housing, data, poverty data, racial and language group data. And it really became a process of, and also getting to know each other and understanding each other’s priorities.
There are priorities and values in this effort. So over the course of the spring, it was really just a matter of working through iterations of the map. I, of course, jumped right in and started map drawing right away, but also there was a huge effort to make sure the public was very engaged. And so a lot of the commissioners went out and had their own meetings with lots of community groups, neighborhood associations, activist organizations, really trying to make sure that we heard from a lot of people.
And then it became a question of, okay, so what are the most important values? Can we narrow the field? I mean there’s literally an infinite number of ways you could draw a map to divide Portland, a city of 640,000 people, into four districts of roughly 160,000 people each, literally an infinite number of ways.
We had a publicly available mapping tool from districter.com, and we had hundreds and hundreds of maps proposed to us. So then the question became, what’s the most important thing? Can we narrow the field? The first thing we did was we almost unanimously, almost right away, the commission decided, you know that area east of the freeway I-205, the east Portland area? Which has elected two people in 110 years to our city council, we ought to draw a district as best as we can that is just that area to guarantee them three of the 12 members of the council.
From my perspective, that also meant, in Portland, we have the Portland Public School District, which has about 75% of the students in it. And then we have these three small independent public school districts all in that same region, east of that freeway. And so by creating a district that is east of 205, we created a city council district with three school districts in it. The city doesn’t run schools, but there’s a lot of interaction between the city and the school districts and guaranteed that community representation.
Okay. Once you’ve made that choice, and it was a 13-0 unanimous decision on that, that narrowed the field. The ciity of Portland also has a river that runs through it, the Willamette River; we tend to think of it as dividing the city east from west, but actually the western part of the city, west of the Willamette River, is actually only about 22% of the city with most of the population at the southern end of that part of the city. And we made a decision early on, we would narrow our search field for these maps to say, “We’ll only look at maps that has the entire west side in a single district,” but it’s only about 22% of the population. So we knew we had to add some east of the river neighborhoods or precincts to the west of the river district.
And that became the most controversial question; where do you cross the river? Which folks on the east side of the city, the central east side of the city, will be represented by a city council member that will almost certainly have their primary political support from folks on the west side? And that east side/west side dynamic is a big thing in Portland. I think it’s probably overplayed a little bit, but we had to figure out what east-side neighborhoods would be attached to the west-side district and that became the big fight.
Nir: How’d you resolve that fight?
Chisholm: Lots of public hearings. Under the Charter Commission, once we had one or more maps and we eventually came down to three finalist maps that represented three different ways of answering that question, we were then obligated under the City Charter to have two hearings in each of the four proposed districts, so eight public hearings. We ended up having nine actually, and we heard from lots of people. And the main thing we heard from people was, “I live in one of those east side neighborhoods and I don’t want to be attached to the west side. I want to have an east side representative on the city council.”
Without getting too far into the weeds, although I know that’s a thing you guys do here. I was the primary mover of a map that would’ve connected what we’ll call the central city, some of those heavily-renter, very dense neighborhoods, they’re called the Buckman and Kerns neighborhoods, with the downtown area. Other folks wanted to have a more sort of suburban-style area called Sellwood attached to the more suburban-style parts of the west. And without getting really deep into the weeds here, it became really a question of socioeconomics.
I ended up losing that fight. We ended up adding these more suburban-style neighborhoods, Sellwood, to the west side. It’s fine. I feel like I got most of what I wanted out of this process, but that was really the thing, is people were really objecting to having representation from somebody who would be mostly elected with west-side voters representing east-side neighborhoods. But you have to have equal population, within a margin of error. And that’s just going to be how it is.
Nir: I know this is getting super deep into the weeds and I’ve never even visited Portland, though I really want to, but I’m super fascinated by this… did you ever consider instead splitting the west side more evenly so that you didn’t have just west side with a little bit of east side?
Chisholm: Yes. In fact, we had lots of people who were proposing exactly that, to chop the city, to not use that river. I mean one of your primary guidelines that you get when you’re doing districting or redistricting is to use existing geographic natural boundaries, political boundaries. So the river is the obvious one in Portland, and yet there were a lot of folks who spent a lot of time trying to think about, “Well, what if the west side was in two districts?” And there were some folks who wanted to do that because they wanted to defend the political prerogatives of the west side, “We’ll elect six of the 12 council members, because we can dominate from the west side.” Others who wanted to chop the west side in half, so they would say, “There won’t be enough west-siders in any district in order for them to dominate. And so we’ll screw the west side and take the power away from the West Hills.”
And one of those two camps is wrong about how that would play out. My basic view is that the west-side neighborhoods, along with a handful of east-side neighborhoods, have largely dominated our politics. And with this sort of one of the four districts being guaranteed to the west side, you essentially limit them to three members of city council creating nine members of the council east of the river, and three of those being from east of the 205 freeway.
David, if you will come to Portland, we will drink great wine and good beer and eat at incredible food carts and I’ll show you all of these neighborhoods anytime you want.
Nir: I’m super stoked. Absolutely.
Beard: So to step back for a second, overall with this whole process that you’ve participated in, was there anything that really surprised you or was sort of an unexpected hitch during your time on this commission?
Chisholm: The first is what I said earlier about the commission itself; I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to work in a way that was collaborative and effective. And that’s the thing that I’ve been hearing from folks all across the city, including from our mayor, that they were shocked that we didn’t devolve into sort of fistfighting and backbiting because a lot of these efforts can get really very ugly very fast. And this was not that group. And we’ve been joking that perhaps the city ought to use us as a SWAT team to solve other problems in the city because we all worked so well together.
But beyond that, I would say I was really, I would say surprised by the depth of feeling by some neighborhoods about a couple of things. One was this desire to keep individual neighborhood association boundaries whole. They really thought of the neighborhood associations as the unit, the building blocks that we should be using to build these districts, and that anytime we proposed a map that split a neighborhood in half, we would hear from that neighborhood, “I can’t believe you guys are doing that to us.” It felt very personal.
We also had testimony along the way that people would say things like, “If you’re drawing a city council district where it puts the neighborhood on the opposite side in a different district than the park, and why are you denying us access to that park?” And we had to say like, “Guys, it’s just a voting district. We’re not building walls here. We’re not saying you can’t go to your favorite park or swimming pool if you’re in the wrong district. We’re not dividing the city into four cities. There’s no taxing component here. There’s no permitting component here. These are just districts for electing people.” And it really got to be almost comic in some of these public hearings, we’d say, “Do you know where your state senate districts are? It doesn’t change what services you get based on what state senate [district] you are in. It won’t change based on what city council district you are in.”
And yet, there was a lot of misinformation, a lot of confusion about, what does this mean, that I’m going to be in one city council district versus another? Will it change where my kids go to school or what public swimming pool we can use or where I can drive? The answer is no, it doesn’t change any of that. It just changes who you vote for.
Nir: So, you’ve got this brand new map, you’ve got this new voting system. When is the first time that voters are actually going to get to cast their ballots and use it?
Chisholm: In many ways, this creation of this map, and we made it official on Monday night, the final gavel fell, it’s now the map — that was firing the starting gun for our city council elections. Filing for candidates opens in September, although we’re already starting to hear folks announce right now. This election will happen in November of 2024. Because it’s a ranked-choice voting concept, there’s no primary election, it’s just one election in the presidential election of November ’24.
We are, in that election, going to be electing a new mayor as well as all 12 of these city council members. Half of them will be running for two-year terms, half of them will be running for four-year terms. The ones in the two-year term, of course, will run then in 2026 for four-year terms, setting up every other kind of election cycle where every two years, we’ll elect six new members of the council. And what we’ve done is we’ve numbered the districts in such a way that the two districts, the north Portland and east Portland districts have historically had the lowest voter turnout and they will be forever on the presidential cycle, in order to maximize voter turnout. And then the southeast Portland and the west Portland districts, which have historically had higher voter turnout, those will be on the midterm or gubernatorial cycle here in Oregon. So that should overall maximize the number of votes for city council over the next few decades.
Nir: Man, this is so, so fascinating. I just love getting into this granular analysis of how things like this actually come together. It’s amazing to me. We have been talking with Kari Chisholm, long-time political consultant in Oregon, about his work on Portland’s new Independent District Commission. Kari, where can our listeners find out more about the commission’s work? Where can they actually see the map? And also how can they follow you and your work?
Chisholm: The best place to go, I would just Google “Portland IDC,” Independent District Commission. You’ll land on the city website, the map is there, and you can see all of our smiling faces and go back and watch dozens of hours of public testimony that are still recorded and available if that is really your jam. Maybe if you’re having trouble sleeping, that would be a good thing to do. As for me, as you know, I’ve recently left my own consulting firm, sold it to my successors, so not a good place to go find me. You can just Google me, Kari Chisholm. I am probably the most Googleable person around, so check it out.
Nir: Kari, thank you so much for coming on “The Downballot.”
Chisholm: It has been a pleasure and I will continue to listen to every episode, except for maybe this one.
Beard: That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Kari Chisholm for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing email@example.com. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcast and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor, Trever Jones, and we’ll be back again next week with a new episode.