Oregon lawmakers are about to debate new political maps. Can they find agreement?

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Sept. 2, 2021 10:40 p.m.

The once-a-decade redistricting process will begin in earnest Friday, when lawmakers give their first pitch for how to reshape the state’s political landscape.

When Oregon lawmakers unveil their first proposals for redrawing the state’s political maps Friday morning, plenty of people will be tuned in.

Business interests, bankrolling a new advocacy group, will be watching for districts they deem unfair to Republicans.


Organized labor, a major backer of the state’s supermajority Democrats, will have their own arguments about fair districts at the ready.

National committees fretting about the delicate balance of power in Washington, D.C., will be keenly interested in lawmakers’ first crack at drawing a brand new congressional district — Oregon’s first in 40 years.

And most likely, they’ll all begin fighting. The draft maps state Senate and House lawmakers plan to drop Friday are the first volleys in a chaotic but brief battle — one that will hold major consequences for the next decade. Oregonians can expect no end of advocacy and arguing as legislators sprint toward their Sept. 27 deadline to pass new maps.

What should Oregon’s political districts look like for the next decade? That’s a question that state lawmakers will work to decide this month. Above are four potential plans for congressional districts submitted by members of the public.

What should Oregon’s political districts look like for the next decade? That’s a question that state lawmakers will work to decide this month. Above are four potential plans for congressional districts submitted by members of the public.

MacGregor Campbell / OPB

“We have an idea what we think the maps should look like,” said Joe Baessler, associate director for AFSCME Council 75, one of the state’s largest labor groups. “We’re obviously organizing testimony. Fundamentally, we want the Legislature to have a fair process.”

Via affiliate group Our Oregon, labor has been marshalling supporters to testify at 12 virtual public hearings set to begin Sept. 8, advocating for political boundaries they believe best reflect how Oregon should divide its electorate into 60 House districts, 30 Senate districts, and soon-to-be six congressional districts.

Forming up on the other side is a group called Fair Maps Oregon. A nonprofit organization that’s not required to disclose its donors, the group is affiliated with a cadre of industry lobbyists and Republican allies, state filings show.

Preston Mann, a former House Republican staffer and vice president of public affairs for the business group Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, is the director of Fair Maps Oregon. He said in a recent interview the group would focus on educating citizens about redistricting, but would also push back against maps it feels give Democrats an unfair advantage.

“Redistricting at times can be this abstract concept to Oregonians that happens once a decade,” Mann said. “The goal here is, one, raise awareness of what is about to happen over the next month and, two, raise awareness about why it’s so important.”

Room for creativity

The task the groups will be trying to influence is more art than science. State and federal law include rules the Legislature must abide by during redistricting, but leave room for plenty of creative license.

Lawmakers must draw contiguous districts of roughly equal populations, using existing geographical or political boundaries, and connecting districts by transportation links. Lawmakers also must not draw districts to favor any party or incumbent, and cannot unnecessarily divide “communities of interest,” an amorphous term that can describe any number of things, from ethnic groups to members of a close-knit church.

The question is whether lawmakers want to tweak existing districts at the edges — making more dramatic changes in high-growth areas like central Oregon and the Portland suburbs, and low-growth areas like eastern and southern Oregon — or rethink the map entirely.

“I don’t think anyone has the right answer” said state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, a co-chair of the House Redistricting Committee. “You can slice and dice this is in so many ways. I believe where you start really makes a difference in how your map ends up.”

Democrats have also said they will be focused on communities of interest, with a goal of not unduly diluting the voting power of traditionally underserved communities by splitting them up. Republicans have been more concerned with districts that they say unnaturally meld urban and rural populations — and therefore tend to overpower conservative-leaning voters by roping in a slice of a liberal city.

The process of drawing an entirely new congressional district is likely to be especially fraught. Democrats currently hold four of the state’s five seats in the U.S. House. In separating the state into six pieces, both parties will be keenly aware of the possible implications for congressional control.

Democrats could press for a map that would give them an additional seat, a 5-1 imbalance that does not reflect the ratio of Democrat to Republican votes statewide. Or the party could content itself with shoring up its strength in two existing, competitive districts held by Democratic U.S. Reps. Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio, and agreeing to a new district that leans conservative.

With Democrats holding a tenuous majority in congress, national interest groups are keeping an eye on that dynamic.

“We’re definitely watching the process in Oregon and looking forward to seeing the draft maps in a few days,” said Fabiola Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

Early disagreement

Already, there are signs that the Legislature’s chances of passing maps might be dim.

In recent weeks, Democrats had envisioned working with Republicans to develop a single set of draft maps for release Friday. Those maps would have been refined — or altered dramatically — based on feedback and redistricting maps submitted by the public and advocacy groups.

Instead, it appears lawmakers will begin on more divided terms. House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said Wednesday that her members bristled at a map-drafting process that would have been driven by Senate Democrats. Instead, Drazan said her caucus will unveil its own proposal for new districts that would differ from any drafts by Democrats.

A close-up image of a woman's face in profile.

Oregon State Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

“There was an expectation in [the Senate] that they were going to just kind of tell everybody else how it was going to be,” Drazan said. “Where we’re at now is we’re going to be transparent about this. We’re not going to start this process and finish this process before Oregonians engage.”

The approach, Drazan conceded, might make finding bipartisan agreement more difficult. But such agreement will be necessary for lawmakers to pass a new redistricting plan.

As part of a deal to avoid Republican delay tactics in this year’s legislative session, House Speaker Tina Kotek agreed to give GOP members an equal say on the House Redistricting Committee. Without at least one Republican vote in that committee, no map can pass.

“I think we have people who want to get to agreement,” Drazan said. “But I am not going to sign off on a map that I believe is gerrymandered.”

Salinas, who is leading House Democrats’ effort, acknowledged Thursday that common ground had been hard to find so far. Her party’s own map, she said, started by situating districts around population centers and areas of highest population growth, and worked from there.

“It could look extreme to some people,” she said, adding she believed her first draft complied with federal and state law. “I will be curious to see the maps that come out tomorrow.”

It was unclear Thursday whether Republicans and Democrats in the Senate would release a united plan or separate drafts. Sen. Tim Knopp, the Bend Republican running point on the issue for his party in the Senate, said Thursday morning talks were still ongoing. Sen. Kathleen Taylor, the Portland Democrat who chairs the Senate Redistricting Committee, did not respond to inquiries.

A rough decade for Republicans

Advocates for more political balance in Oregon have reason to push for altered maps. Republicans and Democrats held almost equal power in the statehouse when the last maps were drawn in 2011. But Democrats have come to dominate legislative politics in the decade since, achieving three-fifths supermajorities in both chambers.

That change can’t only be attributed to maps. The growth of registered Democrats in the state has outpaced that of Republicans in the last decade, 22% to 13%, according to state records. Once reliably red or purple districts in the suburbs and Central Oregon have grown bluer. The party also typically has a better organized reservoir of volunteers to assist its campaigns.

One analysis of Oregon’s current legislative maps, by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, suggests they are slightly tilted in Democrats’ favor, but do not lean as far to either side as maps of previous decades. Based on four metrics for determining whether maps are biased, the CLC describes Oregon’s districts as “balanced.”

Drazan and others believe that’s not the case.

While she concedes Democrats gained strength, Drazan says the fastest-growing segment of voters — those affiliated with neither party — also have a say. And when all votes are tallied, she notes, results in competitive statewide elections reveal an electorate that is more evenly balanced than the current Legislature.

“There are not landslide governor’s races,” she says. No Democrat has cleared more than 50.7% of the vote in the last six gubernatorial elections. No Republican has received less than 42.8% of the vote.

The claim that Oregon’s legislative maps are drawn to assure Democratic dominance might seem confusing if you’re familiar with the state’s last redistricting effort in 2011. With the House evenly split between parties, and the Senate nearly so, Republicans and Democrats had an equal say in those maps.

The parties ultimately found agreement, and the Legislature was able to pass new districts for just the second time in a century.

Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron was the House Republican leader in 2011. Cameron said he recalls both Republicans and Democrats celebrating the fact they were able to come to an agreement over the maps for the first time in as long as anyone could remember.

“I think we demonstrated civility and worked together on a lot of issues, but particularly redistricting at that point in time,” Cameron said. “It was a good accomplishment.”

Others say Cameron’s sunny view is off base. Members of both parties suggested to OPB that Democrats were better prepared than Republicans for the 2011 redistricting process, and so were able to access better data to help them understand which way a new district was likely to vote.

Time is short

This year’s redistricting process comes with one major difference from 2011′s: It has to happen at hyperspeed.

The U.S. Census data states rely on to draw new maps was delayed by months this year, largely due to COVID-19. As a result, the Oregon Supreme Court gave lawmakers until Sept. 27 to pass new maps — a far tighter window than in most redistricting years.

The Legislature is tentatively scheduled to meet in a special session beginning Sept. 20 to attempt to find agreement. If lawmakers cannot pass a plan by the deadline, the job of redistricting will be snatched away from them.

A panel of judges will decide what the state’s congressional districts look like. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a liberal Democrat, will have responsibility for drawing legislative maps. Fagan announced last month she’ll get input from a citizens’ committee if the task is handed to her. Even so, it’s an outcome few Republicans would relish.

“I just don’t think [Fagan] has to take the same political considerations into account as I would,” Salinas said. “That would feel riskier to me if I were the Republicans.”

Drazan disagreed, saying she’s unwilling to vote in favor of a plan she deems unfair.

“I have to look at this from the perspective of the map,” she said. “If I’m staring at a gerrymandered map that cements a Democratic quorum-proof supermajority, whether that’s written by [Democratic state Sen.] Kathleen Taylor or it’s written by Shemia Fagan, it’s still a gerrymandered map.”

OPB reporter Sam Stites contributed to this story.