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Lawmakers unlikely to agree on redistricting

Oregon lawmakers will convene Monday morning to try to reach agreement on new legislative and congressional district maps. The chances of that happening by the Sept. 27 deadline set by the state Supreme Court are, to put it mildly, slim to none.

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Drawing new districts, a process that happens every 10 years following the U.S. Census, is never easy. It is fraught with politics, because where the lines are drawn affects which party controls the Legislature and the congressional delegation for the ensuing decade.

The party in power wants to stay in power, and the party out of power wants to increase the number of seats it holds. Each party accuses the other of “gerrymandering” — drawing districts with the intent of preserving safe seats for its members and making it easier to defeat incumbents on the other side.

This year’s process is more fraught than ever before for a couple of reasons. First, the pandemic delayed the Census Bureau from completing its work by the usual time, meaning states did not get the data they needed to start redistricting until long after the July 1 deadline for finishing that work. The Oregon Supreme Court granted a waiver and set a new deadline of Sept.27.

Second, Oregon is getting a sixth congressional district because of population growth, which means all the districts will need to be redrawn to make room for the new one. Only six states are gaining seats.

The number of state House and Senate districts — 60 and 30, respectively — does not change, but population shifts can affect the size and shape of those districts.

Under state law, as nearly as possible, districts must be contiguous, be of equal population, follow natural geographic and political boundaries, not divide “communities of common interest,” and be connected by transportation links. Communities of common interest is loosely defined, meaning any sub-population, not limited to racial or ethnic minority groups, that wants to occupy the same district. At the same time, districts may not dilute the voting strength of any language or ethnic minority group, and may not be drawn to favor any party or incumbent legislator.

The plan for congressional districts outlined by majority Democrats would result in five Democratic-leaning districts and one overwhelmingly Republican one — the 2nd District that now includes Southern Oregon. The new 2nd District boundary would move east, placing Bend and Hood River in the new 3rd District, and expand west in this area, taking in all of Josephine County and about half of Douglas County, effectively shifting Republican voters out of Rep. Peter DeFazio’s 4th District and making it less competitive.

Observers have noted that the new map would likely give Democrats 5 out of 6 congressional seats, even though Joe Biden won only 56% of the vote statewide last November.

Similarly, Senate Democrats’ proposed legislative maps would give Democrats at least 60% of the seats in each chamber. Republicans understandably are not going to support those plans. Their proposed maps would result in more competitive legislative and congressional districts.

If lawmakers cannot agree by the deadline, the task of drawing legislative districts falls to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a liberal Democrat. Any plan she presents will likely be challenged in court.

Drawing congressional districts would be the task of a five-judge panel, selected from around the state, appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court — a process that has never been tested.

Stay tuned, and buckle your seat belts.