SALEM, Ore. — Oregon lawmakers returned to the state Capitol Monday for a special session to tackle the once-a-decade task of redistricting, which will determine how voters pick state representatives, state senators and members of Congress for the next five election cycles.
For the first time in nearly 40 years Oregon is receiving an additional seat in the U.S. House— increasing the number of congressional districts from five to six and giving the state greater national political clout. But Democrats and Republicans have dueling visions on where congressional district boundaries should fall.
On Monday afternoon, the Senate Redistricting Committee — which is made up of a majority of Democrats — swiftly voted on party-lines to move the Democrats’ congressional redistricting bill forward. Shortly after the proposed plan — which would likely result in five of Oregon’s six congressional seats being blue — passed in the Senate 18-11.
However, the redistricting process in the House is proving to be much slower.
Democrats in various states — including Colorado, Virginia and Oregon — have argued that the redistricting process should not be a partisan brawl. Some lawmakers have pushed for independent commissions to do the work of rebalancing population changes into congressional districts and others have formed evenly split committees made of lawmakers.
In Oregon, where Democrats hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate, it seemed the political party would have a powerful advantage in the redistricting process. However a deal made during the 2021 legislative session relinquished that advantage.
In exchange for Republicans agreeing to stop blocking bills with delaying tactics, during the last legislative session Democrats agreed to evenly split the House Redistricting Committee – essentially granting veto power to Republicans, as a party-line vote would be insufficient to pass new maps.
The deal gives Republicans a weightier say over what the six congressional districts and the state’s 90 legislative districts will look like.
“I was not happy with the speaker’s decision,” Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Democrat and co-chair on the House redistricting committee, said earlier this month.
Salinas referenced frustrations with “lots of layers of extra administrative work” and “extra steps to get the sign off from the Republicans” instead of getting to the “nitty gritty” of creating maps.
Despite this and U. S. Census Bureau data delays, the House committee on redistricting, presented vastly different maps on how the existing five U.S. House of Representative districts in Oregon should be drawn. Four of Oregon’s House seats in Congress are currently held by Democrats while one has long been held by a Republican.
For state legislative districts, there is a set number of districts, so lawmakers can only move the boundary lines and the legislators’ districts must be equal in population. Congressional districts are added and subtracted to states based on population and also must be equal in population.
The Democrats’ map proposes new congressional District 6 should be south of Portland, Oregon’s biggest city, and west of Interstate 5. Republicans also put it south of Portland, but on the east side of the interstate.
But whether or not the differing political parties will agree on maps during the session, remains unforeseen.
“The biggest risk moving forward is that we don’t get maps passed,” Salinas said. “And I would say, I think it’s uncertain for us.”
But if maps are not passed during the session, Democrats have retained a backstop — specifically when it comes to legislative districts. If lawmakers fail to successfully pass new legislative boundaries by Sept. 27, the task will fall to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a progressive Democrat who few Republicans would want to see in charge of that process.
Lawmakers have succeeded in passing redistricting plans just twice since 1911.
Furthermore, if lawmakers fail to come to an agreement on new U.S. House districts by late September, then it would be settled by a five-judge panel.
Lawmakers are scheduled to release drafts of the redistricting maps during a hearing on Friday at 8 a.m. and lawmakers tentatively plan to hold a special session the week of Sept. 20 to pass the maps.
“If (maps aren’t passed) it’s a risk for the Republicans, because I know they don’t want the map drawing to go to the Secretary of State,” Salinas told The Associated Press. “And neither of us really know what a five-panel judge is going to do with congressional maps.”
Cline, who reported from Portland, Oregon, 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.