PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — For the first time in nearly 40 years Oregon is likely to be awarded an additional seat in the United States House of Representatives, increasing the number of congressional districts in the blue state from five to six.
But the uncommon occurrence has been coupled with a set of challenges and unique situations – a lack of census data, a request to extend the task, a push for a bipartisan group to create boundaries rather than lawmakers and a surprising agreement with the minority Republican party.
Here are answers to some questions surrounding the redrawing of Oregon’s congressional district lines.
Q: What is redistricting and how does it work?
A: Redistricting is a process that occurs every 10 years following the census, when lawmakers redraw the state House, state Senate and federal congressional districts.
There is a set number of state legislative districts so lawmakers can only move the boundary lines and they must be equal in population. Congressional districts are added and subtracted to states based on population. These districts must also be equal in population.
Q: Isn’t the census data delayed this year? Will that impact redistricting?
The U.S. Census Bureau’s original plan was to deliver redistricting data to states by March 31, 2021, but like most things during the pandemic, it was delayed. The bureau predicts that data won’t be distributed to Oregon until August.
Under the Oregon Constitution and state laws, the deadline to redraw districts is July 1, well before census data is released. This prompted Oregon’s Senate and House leaders to file a petition with the state Supreme Court to ask for an extension, which was approved this month.
The Legislature now has until Sept. 27 to complete the redistricting process. If lawmakers fail to successfully pass new legislative boundaries by then, the task will fall to Oregon’s Secretary of State, a progressive Democrat.
Should lawmakers fail to come to an agreement on new U.S. House districts, the matter would be settled in the courts.
Q: Will Oregon get an additional congressional seat?
A: For years, officials and experts have forecasted that Oregon’s population growth will result in a new seat. Census data is likely to prove this prediction will show exactly where people have moved to in the state.
The last time this happened was in 1982. Since then, district lines have remained relatively unchanged.
Q: Which party is likely to gain the sixth congressional seat?
A: This question has been at the forefront for many, but experts say the answer is not set in stone.
While the Democratic party is the majority in Oregon there is also a significant Republican presence.
“The real quandary for Democrats is that Oregon is much more of a competitive state than you would think,” said Priscilla Southwell, a political science professor at the University of Oregon. “In the 2020 election 42% of Oregonian voters cast their ballot for a Republican US House candidate, but they still only have one representative.”
Although Democrats have solid control of the state, many people in their party are located in Portland, inner suburbs and Eugene, while rural and eastern Oregon is made up of Republicans.
“I think (Democrats are going to come under a lot of pressure, probably from Republicans more than anyone else, to recognize that there are a lot of Republicans in the state of Oregon and have been underrepresented in the U.S. house,” said Southwell, a registered Democrat.
Congressional District 2, the lone Republican congressional district is represented by freshman U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, is the largest in Oregon — covering roughly two-thirds of the state in rural eastern and central Oregon. It is the seventh largest district in the nation and has a population of 648,280, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The historically conservative region has not had a Democratic U.S Representative in four decades.
Residents in the area say they are worried that their district boundaries will change and they may find themselves with a new Democratic representative.
In a written statement, George Murdock the commissioner of Umatilla County, which falls in the 2nd Congressional district said that his “greatest concern is that our district could be gerrymandered in order to further diminish representation for a portion of Oregon that reflects ideology, values, and interests much different than the remainder of Oregon.”
Q: Will the recent agreement between Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature impact redistricting?
A: On Wednesday Democrats agreed to give up an advantage in redrawing the state’s political districts for the next 10 years in exchange for a commitment from Republicans to stop blocking bills in the Oregon Legislature with delay tactics.
With the agreement Democrats and Republicans will each have three members on the redistricting committee. A party-line vote will be insufficient to pass new maps, which essentially grants Republicans a veto power to block any map of legislative or congressional districts from passing.
The deal gives Republicans more say over what boundaries for the state’s 90 legislative districts will look like and increases the party’s influence on how to divide the state into six congressional districts, if Oregon is awarded an additional seat.
Sara Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues