Census delay leaves Oregon’s redistricting process in a lurch

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Feb. 4, 2021 7:50 p.m.

Drawing new legislative and congressional districts every 10 years is among the Legislature’s key duties. This year it might miss its chance.

A 2020 file photo of an envelope containing a 2020 census letter. The COVID-19 pandemic and lawsuits around the every-ten-years population count is delaying the release of census results this year, creating challenges for Oregon lawmakers.

A 2020 file photo of an envelope containing a 2020 census letter. The COVID-19 pandemic and lawsuits around the every-ten-years population count is delaying the release of census results this year, creating challenges for Oregon lawmakers.

Paul Sancya / AP

Oregon lawmakers are scrambling to retain control over how legislative and congressional districts are redrawn this year after the U.S. Census Bureau revealed it could not provide data in time to meet the state’s deadlines.


The once-a-decade process of drawing new district maps happens after the completion of each new census, and is a significant power for the state Legislature. It helps dictate which political party steers Oregon for the next 10 years.

But under the Oregon Constitution and state laws, lawmakers are facing a hard deadline for creating new maps. It has to be done by July 1.

This year — largely owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and litigation — lawmakers won’t even have a chance to meet that cutoff. The Census Bureau revealed late last month that states should not expect official data for redrawing districts until July 30, at earliest.

That’s got legislators stumped as they look for ways to retain their power rather than relinquishing it to two other entities that might have a say in the process: Secretary of State Shemia Fagan and the Oregon Supreme Court.

“We have to have a plan,” state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said at a hearing of a Senate committee on redistricting Wednesday. “We’re all in agreement we want to do a legislative plan and follow the intent of our law.”

Just how lawmakers might retain their roles is unclear. On Wednesday, the chairs and vice-chairs of the House and Senate redistricting committees sent a letter on the matter to the leaders of both chambers, requesting that the Legislature ask the state Supreme Court to intervene.

“We are deeply concerned by this development,” the letter read. “We respectively ask that you explore potential legal options to remedy this situation, including requesting that the Oregon Supreme Court postpone the July 1 deadline until a date when we can expect to have received the needed data.”

If a postponement were granted, the letter continued, lawmakers could hold a special session to adopt new legislative and congressional maps later in the year. It was unclear Thursday whether House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, would pursue that special session.


“We will explore all options to ensure the Legislature can fulfill its constitutional duty to rebalance the population of Oregon’s districts,” Courtney and Kotek said in a statement.

Lawmakers have also discussed finding new sources of data they could use to draw districts, a topic slated to be taken up in a hearing next week. And some have floated the notion of delaying legislative redistricting until 2023, citing Constitutional language that could provide wiggle room.

The uncertainty caused by the census delay creates an interesting tension between Democrats in the Legislature and one of their allies, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, also a Democrat. Under the Oregon Constitution, it is Fagan’s job to draw legislative districts if lawmakers fail to do so by July 1. Fagan would have until Aug. 15 to complete that process, which in theory means she will have the first crack at drawing new district boundaries if census data arrives between July 30 and mid-August. After Aug. 15, authority for redrawing legislative districts falls to the state Supreme Court.

On Wednesday Fagan suggested to EO Media she was ready to pursue her role, whether or not the Legislature got a say.

“The U.S. Census Bureau has been signaling the possibility of delays since last spring,” Fagan said in a statement to the outlet. “We won’t be caught off guard.”

On the campaign trail last year, Fagan pledged to seek the input of a nonpartisan commission if the job of drawing district lines fell to her. A spokesman for Fagan did not directly respond to questions about her exact plans for doing that, or her opinion on the Legislature pursuing an extended deadline. Instead the spokesman, Aaron Fiedler, said Fagan plans to work with and support the Legislature in coming months.

“Only if it becomes necessary, Sec. Fagan stands ready to fulfill her constitutional responsibility using a People’s Commission, as promised,” Fiedler wrote in an email.

Under state law, the job of redrawing U.S. congressional districting does not fall to the secretary of state if lawmakers can’t get the job done by July 1, however. Instead, it’s decided by a panel of five judges, one from each of the state’s current congressional districts.

Congressional districts are expected to be especially important this year. Oregon’s population growth in the last decade makes it likely to receive an additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. That means someone — lawmakers, the courts or both — would have to figure out how to carve the state into six districts, rather than five. It’s been 40 years since Oregon last got an additional congressional seat.

Until official census numbers arrive, it’s not clear how many people will be included in each state Sentate, state House and U.S. congressional district. But officials have a rough idea.

Charles Rynerson of the Population Research Center at Portland State University laid out likely scenarios for lawmakers Wednesday, based on estimates by the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Based on those estimates, each of Oregon’s 60 state House districts would consist of roughly 71,000 residents, its 30 state Senate districts would comprise 142,000 people, and its congressional districts would contain about 710,000 people.

Some of the larger increases in population over the last decade have occurred near Bend and in and around Washington County, meaning districts in those areas are potentially ripe for changes. Other areas in the state — particularly Eastern Oregon and portions of the coast — have seen their proportion of Oregon’s population shrink, according to maps Rynerson showed lawmakers.