CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Democrats, Republicans and Oregon’s Secretary of State all have differing ideas about when — and how — the state should proceed with redistricting, after the coronavirus pandemic delayed crucial Census data.

The U.S. Census Bureau said COVID-19 made collection of population data difficult and the numbers, which are required by federal law to be sent to the states by April 1, won’t arrive now until the end of September.

That’s well after Oregon’s constitutional deadlines for submitting maps.

Legislative and congressional districts are redrawn once every decade to account for changes in population and ensure fair representation.

In 2011, the ideal populations for Oregon’s districts were:
• 60 House districts of 63,851
• 30 Senate districts of 127,702
• Five Congressional districts of 766,215

The biggest change is the 6th congressional district that Oregon is expected to receive in the 435 member U.S. House. Federal officials should know for sure which states gain or lose seats by April 30.

Currently, a legislative committee redraws the districts. If lawmakers cannot agree, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan will draw the legislative districts and the Oregon Supreme Court would appoint a special panel to draw the congressional lines.

Redistricting committees have begun public hearings seeking comment on the process, as required by Oregon law. Residents can see when their district will have a virtual hearing, and submit testimony, by visiting the legislature’s website.

Conflicting deadlines

Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek asked the Oregon Supreme Court Wednesday to give the Legislature three months to attempt redistricting of state legislative districts once it receives the Census data (currently projected to be September 30). Under current statute, the redistricting deadline is July 1.

“For more than a year, we have worked hard to do as much good as we could for Oregonians in
crisis. It has required more creative thinking, more risk taking, and more collaboration than any
other time in our history,” the Courtney and Kotek said in a joint statement. “Oregon is still in crisis. We will need to keep doing the impossible as we build back and recover.”

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan (KOIN file)

Secretary Fagan does not agree with the Legislature’s effort to move the deadline, arguing it would have cascading effects, and possibly even require pushing back the 2022 primary election.

“I have every confidence they’ll get it done in a bipartisan fashion just like they did 10 years ago,” Fagan said.

To move forward with the July 1 deadline, Fagan said she is in communication with Portland State University’s Population Research Center about using alternative data sets to draw the districts.

Calls for an independent commission

Meanwhile, Republicans are calling for an independent redistricting commission to redraw the maps. Several states — including Washington and California — have similar commissions in place.

“We believe very strongly that voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around. It is a conflict of interest at its very base level,” House Minority Leader Christine Drazan said in a virtual press conference. “This should be one of the most bipartisan proposals that we see this session.”

Former Rep. Jeff Barker, a Democrat from Aloha who recently retired, joined the press conference as well. He claimed that if Republicans were the party with a super majority in both chambers, Democrats would be the ones calling for an independent commission.

“The way it’s set up now, it opens the door to gerrymandering,” Barker said. “The party in power wants to keep the power, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent.”

Partisan gerrymandering is when the party in power redraws district lines to help keep the other party in the minority. A 2017 survey commissioned by the Campaign Legal Center showed 80% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans wanted the U.S. Supreme Court to place limits on lawmakers’ power to manipulate maps.

Secretary Fagan espoused a commitment to nonpartisan redistricting when she ran for office last year. When asked Wednesday if she’d made progress on that front, though, Fagan responded that, in the unlikely event lawmakers can’t agree and redistricting falls on her, she’ll “absolutely go about creating what we call a ‘People’s Commission.'”

House Republican Leader Christine Drazan (Oregon State Legislature)

“At this point we don’t have the funding from the Legislature to go about and do this work because at this point redistricting is not in our lap,” she said.

Earlier this year, Rep. Drazan sponsored House Joint Resolution 7, which would amend the Oregon Constitution and establish a Citizens Redistricting Commission to redraw the maps. Drazan’s bill would send the proposed amendment to voters at the next general election.

The bill was referred to the house rules committee in January, and no further action has been taken.

A coalition known as “People Not Politicians” sought a similar goal last year. They tried to place a measure on the November 2020 ballot that would give a nonpartisan commission redistricting powers.

The group fell short of the required signatures, but successfully argued in federal court that the state should accept a lower number of signatures — or extend the deadline — due to the impact of the pandemic on signature gathering.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane ordered then-Secretary of State Bev Clarno to put the measure on the ballot or give the coalition a lower signature threshold to qualify, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum appealed the ruling though, taking her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted a stay.