With at least three Portland-area state representative candidates running in districts in which they have hardly lived for a small number of months, let alone years, it’s high time to consider measures that will curb elective border-crossing. Under current election law, a candidate wishing to represent a district must live in that district at least one year preceding the date of the general election. That means that a future 2008 candidate for the state legislature would need to move into the district they wish to represent by November 4 of this year–leaving fully one month for all sorts of geographical jockeying of our representative democracy. The one-year residency requirement under Oregon election law, especially combined with Oregon’s short legislative sessions, allows well-known insiders to make an end-run around the spirit of single-member districts, and for this reason it should be lengthened to at least two years.
Because of Oregon’s biennial and short-running sessions, legislators, as incumbents, are more likely to announce re-election intentions (or the lack thereof) at the end of the session, usually three or four months before the one-year residency deadline takes effect. Just think of how many legislators have announced that they won’t be coming back next time: 8 Republicans, plus at least 4 Democrats seeking higher office, have done this in the state House alone. Insiders are preternaturally attuned to this sort of information and therefore have an advantage in that window between the incumbent’s announcement and the residency deadline.
When a well-known insider, or erstwhile lucky politico wannabe, gets the information that a seat is opening up, they’re not running to serve the best interests of that particular district; they’re running to serve themselves by traveling the path of least resistance. Sure, it’s hard to challenge an incumbent, and sure, some districts have higher ambition rates than others. But in Oregon, our single-member district system comes out of a deep-seated respect for and adherence to the democratic principle of ‘one person one vote’. That’s the reason we had to toss out multiple-member districts in the mid-20th century–because the many diverse parts and communities of interest within Portland were represented at large by a varying number of representatives.
By extending the residency requirement from one year to two, we will dramatically reduce the high level of musical chairs currently underway by a good number of Portland’s legislative candidates. The two year requirement will take district residency outside of the calendar imposed by Oregon’s election cycle and will generate candidates that better reflect the values and attitudes of the district in question. Yet, its relative brevity in terms of elective requirements reflects the dynamic nature of living in Oregon.
This change probably cannot be implemented until the 2012 election cycle, but perhaps its consideration will heighten the awareness of the territory-shifting insider candidate and provoke responses accordingly.