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Redistricting in the time of coronavirus

The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced many changes in the way we live our lives. Now it appears one of the most consequential tasks of the state Legislature will be affected as well: drawing new boundaries for state Senate and House districts.

The task of adjusting political boundaries happens every 10 years, after the U.S. Census Bureau finishes counting the nation’s population. But the 2020 census was delayed because coronavirus restrictions hampered the collection of data.

Oregon is in a bind because the state Constitution requires the Legislature to complete the redistricting process by July 1 the year following the census. If lawmakers miss that deadline, the task of drawing new maps falls to the secretary of state.

The Census Bureau has advised the state that it will not be able to provide legislative district data until July 30 at the earliest.

Democrats hold supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, which means they have the opportunity for the first time in recent state history to adopt new district maps without Republican votes. Naturally, they are anxious to do so.

Chairs and vice-chairs of the Senate and House redistricting committees last week asked legislative leaders to request an extension of the deadline from the Oregon Supreme Court. If the court does not grant an extension, newly elected Secretary of State Shemia Fagan would draw the new maps.

During the campaign, Fagan pledged to appoint an independent commission to do the job if the task should fall to her. But she also has a deadline under the Constitution: Aug. 15. If the census numbers aren’t available until July 30, that’s not much time to start and finish the job. Legally, Fagan would need to hold only one public hearing on the plan, but that’s not sufficient.

Minority Republicans, naturally, are calling for a nonpartisan approach to the redistricting process. And whether the new maps are drawn by the Legislature or the secretary of state, a court challenge from the Republicans is virtually a foregone conclusion.

The job of drawing new U.S. congressional districts does not appear to be affected by the late census reports. The Census Bureau has said congressional district data should be available by April, and the state Constitution does not impose a deadline. That’s a good thing, considering that Oregon is expected to gain a sixth U.S. House seat this year thanks to population growth. Carving the state into six rather than five House congressional districts won’t be a simple matter.

The legislative redistricting is a concern, however. The delays and the potential for extended deadlines mean new district boundaries might not be created by Sept. 9, when candidates can file to run for legislative seats in 2022.

We have consistently supported proposals to create a nonpartisan redistricting system, but the latest attempt failed to make the ballot last year because signature-gathering was curtailed by the pandemic. So this year’s redistricting will take place the old-fashioned way.

We have no idea what the Supreme Court might decide if asked to extend deadlines. But that appears to be the best solution to a bad situation. Public participation is vital if voters are to have confidence in the outcome, and compressing the process into a week or two in August is asking for trouble.

The law requires the new district lines to consider geographic boundaries as well as “communities of interest,” all while keeping the population of each district as equal as possible. That’s a complex job that requires time to do well.