Secretary of State Shemia Fagan says Oregon lawmakers are jeopardizing next year’s elections in their rush to preserve their chance to redraw the state’s political maps.
In a memo that reveals a striking disagreement between top Democrats in the state, Fagan on Wednesday told the Oregon Supreme Court that a proposal to extend the Legislature’s window for rejiggering state House and Senate districts risks confusing voters and muddying the electoral process.
“If this court were to grant the relief the Legislative Assembly seeks, the map might not be finalized until July 2022—well after the May 2022 primary,” the memo said. “The resulting cost, confusion, and instability to Oregon’s electoral process could be staggering.”
The argument is the latest volley in a confused and unprecedented fight over how Oregon’s once-a-decade redistricting process should proceed in light of long delays from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In a typical redistricting year, lawmakers would rely on census data provided in April to meet a constitutional deadline of redrawing House and Senate districts by July 1. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed back the release of that census data six months, well after lawmakers are due to finish their maps.
To preserve their ability to have a say in the politically potent redistricting process, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney filed suit last week, asking the state Supreme Court to override the constitutional deadline. They’re seeking three months from the day they receive census data to draw new districts. And they’ve asked the court to prevent Fagan, who has secondary redistricting authority if the Legislature fails, from beginning her own process.
Fagan, in an argument she summarized for reporters last week, now says that’s a wrongheaded plan.
Rather than waiting for census data, the secretary believes the Legislature can use information from the Population Research Center at Portland State University to draw new districts with reasonable certainty. If any of those districts are impermissibly large or small compared to others, a court could order that Fagan correct the error, she says.
“While the census may be the most accurate and well-accepted evidence of population, it is not the only source of accurate or reliable information,” Fagan’s memo said. “When the census data becomes available, it will be straightforward to compare it to the data the Legislative Assembly used and determine if any corrections must be made to the map.”
While Fagan acknowledges the process she is proposing would require a “broad view” of the court’s authority, she insists it’s better than the alternative.
Under the timeline proposed by lawmakers, the Legislature could have until late December to draw maps. Those maps would then be subject to legal challenges that could result in revisions.
Fagan says the process risks being drawn out until as late as July, well after the May 17 primary election, to say nothing of the candidate filing deadline for that election. That, in turn, would require the state to move back its election timelines.
“Moving that primary at all is highly undesirable: It would upend the reasonable expectations of candidates and campaigns, and confuse Oregon’s voters, who have come to expect to vote at the May primary,” the memo said.
In a release sent out Wednesday, Fagan added that she is “deeply concerned about the ability of our state’s county clerks to administer stable, predictable elections next year if the Legislature is successful in moving deadlines and changing 2022 election dates.”
A date for Fagan and lawmakers to make oral arguments before the court has not been set.