Oregon lawmakers will be allowed to blow past constitutional deadlines for redrawing political districts this year after a ruling Friday by the Oregon Supreme Court.
The opinion, which has roots in difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, allows the Legislature to retain its primary role in crafting boundaries that will help dictate who holds power in the state for the next 10 years.
It also puts to bed a dispute between Democrats in control of the Legislature and Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan about how Oregon should navigate an unprecedented situation. It’s Fagan’s responsibility to draw maps if lawmakers fail, and she had repeatedly insisted pushing back constitutional deadlines was unnecessary.
With its opinion, the court announced it would issue a writ giving lawmakers until September 27 to craft new maps for the state’s 90 legislative districts and likely six congressional districts. Under the constitution, lawmakers are supposed to complete that work by July 1.
The modified timeline is necessary, the court and lawmakers agree, because of delays in U.S. Census data brought on by the coronavirus. The U.S. Census Bureau now says it won’t be able to get detailed population information to states until Aug. 15 at the earliest, well past the constitutional deadline voters enacted in 1952.
“We have been presented with no reason why the voters who adopted the 1952 amendments would have been concerned with the exact date by which the Legislative Assembly or Secretary are required to enact or make a plan, except as part of a larger framework calculated to result in the adoption of a timely final plan,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters wrote in the opinion.
While the move gives lawmakers breathing room, it will require quick work — and a special session. In most redistricting years, the Legislature has three months to analyze census data and complete maps. The court’s timeline will give lawmakers less than 45 days, assuming the Census Bureau delivers data by Aug. 15.
Lawmakers initially asked for three months after the delivery of census data to finish their task. But leaders in the redistricting process hailed the ruling nonetheless.
“The principle of ‘one person, one vote’ is fundamental to our democracy and the entire undertaking of redistricting,” said state Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, who chairs the Senate Redistricting Committee. “Now that the Supreme Court has granted an extension to the deadline, the Legislature can protect that principle by using the accurate and detailed population counts and demographic information from the 2020 Census data as the foundation for our redistricting.”
Republicans, who are leery that Democratic control of the Legislature puts them at a disadvantage in the process, also praised the ruling, while reiterating their calls for a nonpartisan commission to handle redistricting.
“Election integrity and fair districts live to fight another day because of this decision,” said state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, vice-chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee. “It ensures that we can continue to work together to ensure that Oregonians can pick their representatives fairly.”
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan and Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod both issued statements calling on Democrats to hand the job of drawing new maps to a nonpartisan committee. The majority party has shown no signs it will do so this year.
“Shockingly, we are the only state on the west coast that does not currently have an independent redistricting commission,” Drazan said. “In fact, we’re behind 26 other states in the country that have or are moving to an independent system this year.”
The court’s opinion had little regard for the arguments floated by Fagan, who had urged justices to take no action on constitutional deadlines. Fagan argued that there was ample non-census data lawmakers could use to draw legal districts by the July 1 deadline. Those maps could then be tweaked if census data indicated any big problems, she said.
A major concern for Fagan: That deadlines associated with the 2022 election would have to be pushed back along with the redistricting timeline, creating confusion among candidates and voters alike and creating difficulties for county clerks.
But the court said Fagan’s proposal would create problems in the process that allows citizens to object to legislative maps, creating uncertainty and potentially even hampering the court’s ability to correct flawed boundaries. Moreover, the court found that census data is most reliable for crafting new maps, and that it made little sense not to hold off until it is delivered.
“We reject the secretary’s argument that we should not act because there is no need to act,” Walters wrote.
The court did, however, appear to tailor its revamped redistricting schedule to have minimal impact on election deadlines.
Under the plan, maps will be completed no later than February 8, a timeline that the courts noted is well before the March 8 deadline to file candidacy for legislative office. In addition, the court said it will modify residency requirements to ensure that anyone living in the district in which they plan to run on the day maps take effect would be allowed to run in that district.
In a statement, Fagan suggested her concerns had been addressed.
“Our agency’s core objectives were to prevent moving the 2022 election dates and to preserve robust public input by starting the process with available population data,” she said. “We appreciate that the Oregon Supreme Court thoughtfully adopted both of our objectives.”
If lawmakers fail to pass a set of new legislative maps by Sept. 27, the job will fall to Fagan. Under the court’s new timeline, she would have until Oct. 18 to complete the work.