PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers are starting the once-a-decade process of redrawing electoral maps that will determine how voters pick state representatives, state senators and members of Congress for the next five election cycles.
In a normal redistricting year, the weekslong task would already be underway, if not completed. But the coronavirus pandemic caused delays in the release of U.S. Census Bureau data required to draw new maps. The redistricting data, culled from the 2020 census, was released Thursday — four months later than expected.
The redistricting numbers that states use for redrawing congressional and legislative districts show where white, Asian, Black and Hispanic communities grew over the past decade. They also show which areas have gotten older or younger and the number of people living in dorms, prisons and nursing homes.
The data covers geographies as small as neighborhoods and as large as states. An earlier set of data released in April provided state population counts.
Steady population growth — driven by newcomers from other states — is giving Oregon greater national political clout. U.S. Census Bureau figures released in April showed the state’s population increased by 10% over the past decade, and as a result, Oregon got an additional congressional district for the first time in 40 years.
For state legislative districts, there is a set number 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 and also must be equal in population.
Expanding Oregon’s number of U.S. House seats from five to six won’t necessarily be a win for Democrats, who control the state politically and hold all but one of its U.S. House seats.
Democrats, who also overwhelmingly control the Legislature, agreed to give up an advantage in redrawing the state’s political districts for the next 10 years in exchange for a Republican commitment to stop blocking legislation with delay tactics.
With the agreement, Democrats and Republicans will have an equal number of 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.
The deal gives Republicans more say over what the boundaries for 90 legislative districts will look like and increases the GOP’s influence on how to divide the state into congressional districts.
Under the Oregon Constitution and state laws, the deadline to redraw districts is July 1, well before census data was released. Senate and House leaders filed a petition with the state Supreme Court for an extension, which was approved. The Legislature now has until Sept. 27 to complete the redistricting process.
If lawmakers fail to pass new legislative boundaries by then, the task will fall to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a progressive Democrat. Lawmakers have succeeded in passing a legal plan just twice since 1911.
Last week, Fagan announced that she is planning to form a “People’s Commission” to offer thoughts on what the maps should look like if the job were to fall to her.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that Fagan’s office will open a web portal Thursday where residents can apply for the committee. To qualify, applicants must be 16 or older and have lived in Oregon since April 2020. Depending on how many applications it receives, the Secretary of State’s Office plans to select up to 20 commission members.
If lawmakers fail to come to an agreement on new U.S. House districts by Sept. 27, it would be settled in the courts.
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.