Cows Don’t Vote: The Unwarranted Political Clout of Oregon’s Rural Sheriffs

For the past 31 years, Oregon has operated under a sanctuary state law that directs Oregon law enforcement officials to use the state’s resources to enforce state and local laws only. Specifically, state and local law enforcement in Oregon may not use state resources to enforce federal immigration law against individuals whose sole violation of the law is being in the United States illegally. ORS 181.850. On the other hand, the federal government is free to use whatever resources it desires to enforce its immigration laws. Oregon’s sanctuary law is now under fire.

Oregonians now face Ballot Measure 105 that would, if passed, repeal Oregon’s law prohibiting the use of state resources to enforce federal immigration law. This is a terrible idea for a host of reasons, including the fact that it is supported by numerous groups identified as “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Rather than litigating the damage Measure 105 would inflict upon our state, this article is directed to the media’s coverage of a joint letter written by a group of Oregon sheriffs in support of Measure 105. These sheriffs, 16 in all, strongly voiced their support of Measure 105, and announced this support at a well-attended press conference. The media took notice. A lot of notice.

A consumer of Oregon news could reasonably view the coverage of these 16 sheriffs as something akin to a mass movement. The Oregonian’s front page article on these sheriffs aptly noted this represents “more than a third of Oregon’s sheriffs.” OPB and Willamette Week  correctly wrote, this number represents “nearly half of the sheriffs in Oregon.” (Emphasis added). While these statements are true, they are misleading. Here is why.

The total population of the 16 counties represented by these 16 sheriffs is 656,515 people (but more than 1 million cows). In a state containing 4,142,776 people, these sheriffs—who were not elected for their expertise on public policy—represent just 15.8% of Oregon’s total population. Multnomah County by itself contains 20% more people than these 16 counties combined. None of the many articles covering these 16 sheriffs mentioned this detail. This fact also did not lead Oregon’s media sources to move this story off its front pages or give it less than prominent coverage on their websites. In contrast, Sheriff Mike Reese of Multnomah County (who, again, represents 20% more people than these 16 sheriffs combined) opposes Measure 105, but good luck finding a single news article that mentions Sheriff Reese’s opposition.

An important caveat to this story is that of Oregon’s approximately 130,000 undocumented immigrants, it is reasonable to assume the vast majority of these immigrants are not likely to reside in places like Seaside, Oregon or Mitchell, Oregon. This means that if these 16 rural sheriffs are able to persuade a majority of voters to direct our state law enforcement resources to enforce federal law, it will not be the rural areas who bear the lion’s share of the cost.

This issue and the media’s coverage of these sheriffs is another example of the rural bias our media consistently exhibits. Cows don’t vote. People do. And our media should reflect that.

In discussing this issue and others here in Oregon, it is common to hear rural Oregonians complain that “Portland and Eugene decide our elections.” While such a sentiment is understandable, those making this complaint would do well to remember that more than 55% of our state’s population lives in these two metropolitan areas. If one subscribes to the long-held American principle of “one person, one vote,” this cannot be a complaint or sentiment the media promulgates by way of thoughtless reporting or reckless pandering. Democracy matters.

– Dylan

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