Legislative leaders on Friday released competing plans for new political districts to be used beginning with the 2022 election.
Hopes for a quick consensus to meet a looming Sept. 27 deadline to get a proposal to the Oregon Supreme Court were immediately hit by partisan crossfire over the first drafts of maps that would be used for the next decade.
“Our current districts have diluted the voices of Oregonians for two decades to advance one political party and incumbent politicians,” said Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, co-chair of the House Redistricting Committee.
Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, the committee’s other co-chair, objected to the accusation, especially during the first look at proposals.
“These maps aren’t final,” Salinas said. “None of them are.”
In all, lawmakers showed three plans for the 60-district House, three plans for the 30-district Senate, and two plans for the six congressional districts.
None of the maps were released to the public until minutes before an 8 a.m. joint meeting Friday of the House and Senate redistricting committees. Because of COVID-19 concerns, the meeting was held online. A series of 12 planned public hearings — dubbed “the road show” — that were going to be held across the state will also now be virtual amid a spike in pandemic infections.
While revisions are likely, the early presentations shed some light on the push-and-pull that will go on before an expected special session of the Legislature begins Sept. 20 to try to pass a single plan.
‘Cracking and packing’
An immediate difference was where to put the new, sixth congressional seat — Oregon’s first new congressional seat in 40 years.
Plans from Democrats and Republicans both used common redistricting methods known as “cracking and packing.”
The proposed Democratic map “cracked” Portland into chunks parceled out into three districts. The newest of the configurations stretches east from Portland to Hood River then south to Bend. The cities are in Hood River and Deschutes counties — the only counties east of the Cascades won by President Joe Biden in his defeat of then-President Donald Trump in 2020. The change would shift the cities from representation by the congressional delegation’s only Republican, freshman U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, to one likely represented by the most liberal congress member, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland.
Republicans would be “packed” into the remaining areas east of the Cascades, making Bentz’s district even more prohibitively Republican than now. Blumenauer’s district would become less Democratic-leaning, but remain a tough race for Republicans. The other four districts would be remolded to make them less of a nail biter for Democratic incumbents, especially U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, and U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Salem.
Republicans proposed “packing” as many Democrats as possible into a district centered on Portland. A GOP win in Oregon’s largest city would be even more of a longshot. But the plan keeps Bend and Hood River as “blue” islands in a Republican “red” sea east of the Cascades.
With each party having a slam-dunk win, the other four districts were configured to make a Republican victory either highly likely or very possible. One big change would shift the Astoria area out of the district that takes in a chunk of heavily Democratic Multnomah and Washington counties. It would move into a district that encompasses more of the coast and only moves inland south of the Portland metro area.
Adding to the already tough task was three different plans for how to divvy up the state Senate and House seats — one each from House Democrats, House Republicans and Senate Democrats. Drawing those lines was already tough because of the requirement that each Senate seat encompass two House seats, with requirements for near equal populations, respecting communities of interest, geographic unity, follow transportation links and elements of the federal Voting Rights Act that could lead to lawsuits contending district lines were drawn to disadvantage racial minorities.
The biggest changes are around the Bend area, which grew by over 20% in the past 10 years, twice the state rate. The total number of House seats would increase in the region, with at least two being likely Democratic wins based on voter registration. Senate District 27, currently held by Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, would move from being a swing district that the Republican has been able to hold despite ever-tighter races, to one Democrats have a strong chance of flipping in the future.
Knopp said it was too early to get overly concerned about the final outcome.
He pointed to additional plans submitted to the committees by Oregon residents using a state software program to draw lines. Lawmakers also have several hearings to get input from all areas of the state and political hues.
“There hasn’t been agreement on the plans,” he said. “There can’t be agreement without the public.”
The stark differences in starting points makes it less likely that a plan can get through the Legislature and avoid a veto by Gov. Kate Brown.
The Oregon Constitution calls for redistricting to be done by the Legislature and approved by the governor.
But this official “Plan A” has only worked twice since 1911. Partisan splits in the Legislature, vetoes by a governor or legal challenges that threw the maps into the courts have more often been the result of the once-a-decade shifting of lines due to population changes.
The constitutional fallback is for legislative districts to be drawn by the secretary of state, while maps for the congressional districts are handled by a special panel of five judges. The plans then go to the Oregon Supreme Court for review.
Democrats currently hold a political “trifecta” — the House, Senate and governor’s office are all controlled by the party. It seemed that 2021 would be a rare year to have the process in the Constitution play out with Republicans limited to complaining from the sidelines.
The COVID-19 crisis upended expectations. U.S. Census data was delayed by six months and it took an Oregon Supreme Court decision to give the Legislature a shot at coming up with maps — but in a compressed timeline with a hard deadline of Sept. 27 to have a plan to the justices. After that, the secretary of state and the judges panel would draw the lines, which the court would review.
The pandemic also led to a controversial deal giving Republicans a central role in redistricting.
House GOP leaders used parliamentary tactics to slow the progress of Democratic legislation during the 2021 session. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, worried that the constitutionally-mandated deadline to end the 180-day session at the end of June would arrive with key bills left to die.
Kotek struck a deal with House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby. In exchange for speeding up voting on bills, Drazan would get a seat on the House Redistricting Committee. The move gave Republicans equal numbers of the panel.
Drazan essentially had a veto over what plan the committee could send to the Legislature. But Drazan also had to decide how far to push her advantage. Any compromise worked out by lawmakers could still be vetoed by Brown. Legislative redistricting would be done by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democratic and former state senator from Portland elected in 2020. If that happened, Republicans would be shut out of any say in districts that would be in place for a decade.
“It will be a tough needle to thread,” Drazan said during a media call after the meeting.
Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee, said speculation on the final shape of any plan was premature. Hearings could raise issues the committee may have missed.
“We want to hear what Oregonians have to say about the maps proposed — what works, what doesn’t,” she said.
The League of Women Voters and other nonpartisan groups hope this will be the last redistricting under the current system. California, Washington and several other states have moved away from the traditional redistricting process used in Oregon to create independent commissions to draw new district lines. In the rest of the nation, the commissions are often a cause of Democrats who are in the minority in most legislatures.
Whichever party benefits, reformers say lawmakers need to be removed from the process.
“There is no amount of technical savvy or sophisticated mapping software that removes the inherent conflict of interest that exists when partisan legislators are given the benefit of drawing their own electoral lines — the fox is guarding the henhouse,’’ said Norman Turrill, chair of People Not Politicians, the Portland-based coalition advocating for a commission in Oregon.
The group still hopes to get a ballot measure before voters in 2022. But no change will likely occur in districts until the next census in 2030 leads to a new set of political maps in 2032.