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Oregon Legislature wants its day in court for redistricting

Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature are uniting to reset the clock on delays that would cut them out of drawing political maps for the 2022 election.

Citing the overwhelming challenge of counting heads during the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau says that was data due April 1 won't arrive until Sept. 30 — six months late.

"We are going to blow by all the deadlines at this point," said Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, chair of the House Redistricting Committee, on a press call Monday.

Legislators want the courts to reset the clock, saying the extraordinary U.S. Census delay shouldn't take away their rightful job of drawing lines for 60 House, 30 Senate and up to six congressional seats.

In an extremely abnormal year, the normal course of events prescribed in the state constitution and law can't happen. Oregon is not alone in this mess. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports the Sept. 30 data delivery could upend the process in at least 26 states.

In Oregon, the timeline is supposed to begin with the U.S. Census every 10 years. The block-by-block data is sent to states by April 1 the following year. The Legislature draws the maps and sends them to the governor for approval by the time they adjourn July 1. If political stalemate gets in the way, the secretary of state redraws the legislative maps by Aug. 15. A special five-judge panel draws the congressional maps. The new lines are then used in legislative and congressional races the following year. For this cycle, they would first be used in May 2022 primaries.

All the deadline dates will be long-gone by the time the Census gets the numbers to Oregon.

The mess now looks headed to the Oregon Supreme Court. Lawmakers in both parties have approved using the legislative counsel to explore legal options.

Salinas said a best case scenario would be for the court to rule the Legislature has 60 days from when it received the census data to draw the maps and get them to the governor.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said the option was possible even though the Legislature must adjourn its regular session on July 1.

"We'd have a special session," she said Monday.

Salinas said the worst case scenario is the courts deciding political boundaries.

Democrats have supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Gov. Kate Brown and Secretary of State Shemia Fagan are both Democrats.

Republicans have called for the creation of an independent commission to do redistricting, a system used by California.

That's an option for the future. Republicans know the Democrats will dominate the process, but they prefer to debate the maps in committees and on the floor of the House and Senate to having the maps drawn out of public sight.

In the meantime, Salinas said the committee would begin the legally-mandated series of public hearings, even though they have no specific district outlines to discuss with potential voters. Normally, the proposals go on a "road show" for hearings around the state. With COVID-19 still at dangerous levels and an unclear set of political boundaries, lawmakers are discussing the best way to get public input. Salinas said there may be more information by the end of this week.