If the last 110 years are any indication, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan could have a big say in the makeup of Oregon state House and Senate districts for the next decade.
While state lawmakers technically get the first crack at drawing new political districts every 10 years, they have succeeded in passing a legal plan just twice since 1911. If they fail this year, the hugely important job of creating state legislative maps falls to Fagan. But the Democratic secretary says she’ll have help.
In step with a pledge she made on the campaign trail last year, Fagan is planning to form a “People’s Commission” to offer thoughts on what maps should look like, should the job fall to her.
“Our goal is that our commission will reflect the regional diversity of Oregon, the racial and ethnic diversity of Oregon, and really provide that input,” Fagan said in an interview Wednesday, suggesting the process would be the “most inclusive” Oregon has ever seen in a redistricting effort.
Beginning Thursday, Fagan’s office is opening up a web portal where Oregonians can apply for the new committee, which would only be convened if lawmakers fail to pass their own plans.
To qualify, applicants must be at least 16 and have lived in Oregon since April 2020. But there are a lot of things potential commissioners can’t be, too: current or recent lawmakers, current or recent lobbyists, candidates for office, and legislative or party staff.
Depending on how many applicants it receives, the Secretary of State’s Office plans to select up to 20 commission members, with a focus on people with diverse experience and backgrounds, and a goal to include people from all five of Oregon’s congressional districts. Commissioners will be paid for their time — $100 per half day, and $150 per full day — and be expected to attend a training, five public hearings, and a final “debrief” meeting to offer input.
States throughout the country have increasingly opted to take the job of drawing political maps from lawmakers with a vested interest in that process and put it in the hands of independent redistricting commissions.
Typically these commissions contain the same amount of Republicans and Democrats to guard against attempts to draw maps in either party’s favor. Depending on the state, they also might include people not affiliated with any major party.
Washington, California, and Idaho have all adopted a commission model for redistricting, but a campaign last year that would have asked Oregon voters to approve such a system failed to gather enough signatures. Supporters are now hoping to place the question on the 2022 ballot, with the goal of forcing a fresh redistricting process if voters approve. Meanwhile, minority Republicans have called for Democratic lawmakers to send a commission proposal to voters on their own, but have found little interest.
Fagan’s “People’s Commission” differs significantly from independent commissions in other states. The plan doesn’t contain any explicit requirements for a certain number of Republicans or Democrats, though Fagan says she plans to “make sure that no political party is over represented.”
And while commissions elsewhere have the final say in what maps look like, Fagan’s group will be advisory only, with no explicit requirement that its input be adopted. Fagan says she’s committed to getting the perspective of a wide range of people about what fair and legal districts should look like.
“It’s not just what I heard from Oregonians, but I want to hear what all of these commissioners heard as well,” Fagan said. “I may not hear the same thing as a commissioner who’s a tribal member...or somebody who’s a farmer out in Southern Oregon or Eastern Oregon.”
In a normal redistricting year, the process of drawing new political maps would already be well underway, if not finished. The state Constitution gives lawmakers until July 1 to pass new boundaries, and the secretary of state until Aug. 15 if the Legislature fails.
But COVID-19 has thrown the regular timetable out the window. Delays created by the virus have meant that the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t expect to deliver the fine-grained population data required to draw new maps until Aug. 15.
Earlier this year, the Oregon Supreme Court granted lawmakers the ability to skirt normal deadlines, giving the Legislature until Sept. 27 to pass its own set of legislative and congressional maps. If they fail to find agreement, Fagan will have until Oct. 18 to build her own plan for state House and Senate districts. Courts have the final say if lawmakers fail to pass new congressional maps.
It’s unclear, of course, whether lawmakers will wind up handing the job to Fagan. In 2011, the last time the state rejiggered its districts, lawmakers found rare agreement on a plan. It’s possible they could do so again.
“From everything that I have learned from them, they have every intention of getting it done like they did 10 years ago,” Fagan said. “It’s the same leadership in the House and the Senate that already has done this, so we have every expectation that they will get it done.”
But, she adds, “I have an obligation to Oregonians to be prepared in the event that they miss that deadline.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the current deadline for the Oregon Legislature to set legislative and congressional maps.