How Multi-Member Districts Could Create Better Politicians
In the single-member system, “you’re rural or urban, and your viewpoint is very provincial; very provincial," according to Vic Atiyeh.
[This is an adapted excerpt from a biography of Governor Vic Atiyeh.]
There have been several Oregon Way pieces about changes to voting systems with some mention of multiple-member districts. In one proposed multi-member district system, Oregonians would effectively vote for their top three candidates—the top vote getter would become the state senator for the district, the second and third place candidates would become the two state representatives. I am a big fan of multiple-member districts simply because they tend to change the way elected official view their constituents and the way constituents view their elected officials.
Oregon had multiple-member districts until 1972. This developed because each county got a senator, but with population growth in more densely populated areas, some counties ended up with multiple Senate and House members packed into countywide districts. By the 1970s there were multiple-member districts for Senate or House members or both in Marion, Lane, Washington (which shared one with Yamhill), Clackamas, and Multnomah (which actually had five subdistricts), Douglas, and Jackson. Smaller counties shared a single Senate or House member—for instance Umatilla, Union, and Wallowa were represented by one senator among them.
Many legislators from that era liked the multiple-member system much better than the single-member system we have now.
Vic Atiyeh, then one of Washington County’s senators, represented all the County, from the dairy farmers and loggers on the west side to the dense suburbs of Portland on the east side. As he explained it, “So my constituents, obviously, ran from urban to rural, and I had to be aware of the total concept.” In the single-member system, “you’re rural or urban, and your viewpoint is very provincial; very provincial.”
The future governor felt that the single-member districts encouraged legislators to focus mainly on their geographic districts and not as much on the larger issues facing the regions legislators lived in or the state as a whole. Atiyeh recalled, it “probably is the worst thing that we did.” Among other ills, the provincialism “really also adds to the length and difficulty of a session” because of members’ emphases on their particular constituencies.
I knew that whoever replaced me was going to be very provincial. And I don’t say this out of any other context, but I represented the entire county, I became acquainted with the entire county, which related to the far west rural to the far east highly urbanized. And so I had to know and understand and help and deal with those extremes, extreme things. But whoever replaced me never ran [in] all of Washington County, ran just [in] that district, which is the very urban, so they’re going to represent urban views because that’s their district.
Atiyeh’s view was shared by fellow Republican, and 1972-first-year House member, Norma Paulus (Salem). She recalled that the single-member districts allowed “the political forces to target people with more concentrated money, which leads to more special-interest legislation.”
Ted Kulongoski agreed with Atiyeh’s assessment. Kulongoski was first elected to the Legislature in 1975, but worked as a staff member in the Legislature before then. But he felt the 18-year-old vote was just as influential as the change to single-member districts in that 1972 election. A big new group of voters entered the system. In Kulongoski’s assessment, these two influences transferred power from rural areas to urban areas. Vera Katz and Earl Blumenauer from Portland, both elected in 1972, became major players.
This shift in the power structures in the Legislature predated by about fifteen years Oregon’s overall electoral shift to being a Democratic state. But in the Legislature, in Kulongoski’s analysis, the power shifted from business Republicans to liberal Democrats simply because of the type of candidates winning in single-member districts in the Portland area and the sheer number of them.
The old system in which groups of legislators represented an entire county was gone. Roger Martin, who would have been Speaker of the House if the Republicans had held the House in the 1972 election, saw a tremendous change in his constituency. Instead of representing Clackamas County and working to reach 50,000 voters, as he had in 1970, in 1972 he represented the cities of Lake Oswego and Milwaukie, and he had to reach out to an electorate of about 16,000.
For legislators farther away from the dense population centers of the Portland area and cities in the Willamette Valley, the change was not as wrenching. Bill Markham (R-Douglas County) kept the rural parts of the county in his House district, but lost the county seat, Roseburg. Markham was fine with that. He no longer had to jointly represent Douglas County with “Al Flegel [D-Roseburg], liberal son-of-a-bitch. I’d tell him so if he was sitting here, and I’m not kidding.” Markham no longer had to concentrate on the population center of Roseburg, and he could devote himself to his rural constituents in all the rest of Douglas County and further south into parts of Josephine and Jackson Counties.
I would rather that the Bill Markhams of the world had to deal with the more liberal constituency of the major city in his county. And I would rather that the Vic Atiyehs of the world continued to talk to the dairy farmers while pursuing a living as a carpet dealer in downtown Portland. A lot of the splits we see in Salem and the ways people view elective politics would be very different with multiple-member districts.
Longtime observer of Oregon and west coast politics. Political analyst for various media outlets, professor at Pacific University.