Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Friday offered very different visions for how Oregon should redraw its political districts for the next decade, with both sides offering plans that could offer a partisan advantage.
In the first salvo of a three-and-a-half week dash toward passing new maps, members of the House and Senate committees on redistricting unveiled their starting visions for how to apportion the state’s 60 House seats, 30 Senate seats, and six congressional seats.
It’s an inherently political fight, with Democrats hoping to keep the supermajority lock they have on the statehouse, and Republicans arguing the current maps — which members of their party approved 10 years ago — are wildly biased.
“These maps aren’t final. None of them are,” said state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, a co-chair of the House Redistricting Committee. “We’ll be using them for public input to help us improve and ensure fair representative lines for the final maps we vote on later this month.”
Of special interest this year is how Oregon creates a brand new congressional district, splitting the state into six parts instead of the current five. With Democrats currently controlling the U.S. House by a slim margin, how Oregon proceeds could have implications in Washington, D.C.
Democrats’ proposal would center the new Congressional district in two areas that have seen some of the fastest population growth in the last decade: Washington County and the Salem region. The proposal would expand Congressional District 3, currently held by Portland Democratic U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, far to the east and south to encompass Hood River, Wasco, and Jefferson counties, and snatch up a portion of fast-growing Bend. It would send Congressional District 5, held by Democrat Kurt Schrader, deeper into the Portland area, and farther south while divorcing it from the coast.
And according to one analysis, the plan would be biased heavily in Democrats’ favor. A tool created by the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center to identify bias in political maps based on four measures suggests the proposal favors Democrats on all four measures, though it suggests such ratings might be skewed in a state with fewer than seven districts. The analysis suggests it could lead to a congressional split of 5 Democrats to 1 Republican, a breakdown that is far out-of-step with the partisan split in statewide races. The website Fivethirtyeight concurred with that analysis.
Republicans’ congressional proposal, meanwhile, was tilted more in the GOP’s favor, the analysis suggested. The plan would create a highly competitive sixth congressional district based around Portland’s southern suburbs and stretching down to encompass Salem and out east. It would shrink down two seats held by Blumenauer and U.S. Rep Suzanne Bonamici, so that they’re confined to deep blue Multnomah and Washington counties, and rejigger the lines of the competitive districts held by Schrader and Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio to favor Republicans.
According to the Campaign Legal Center analysis, the Republican proposal would create two solid Democratic districts, two districts that lean Republican, one swing district and one solid Republican district. Fivethirtyeight labeled three of the districts under the Republican plan “highly competitive,” with two solid Democratic districts and one solid Republican seat.
Neither analysis of the congressional plans account for the power of incumbency enjoyed by Oregon’s veteran congressional Democrats, a factor that typically has sizeable weight in elections.
Lawmakers also unveiled three separate visions for how to draw the state’s legislative districts — one joint proposal from the Senate, and one apiece from House Democrats and House Republicans.
There, too, the parties brought very different ideas.
Plans for drawing the 60 House districts submitted by House Democrats and the Senate Redistricting Committee were scored similarly in terms of bias. They could each lead to Democrats’ retaining their three-fifths supermajority in the House, according to the Campaign Legal Center, though some districts would be extremely competitive.
House Republicans’ plans for apportioning House districts were rated as more biased in the GOP’s favor by the Campaign Legal Center’s tool, which suggested an unlikely 30-30 split could be possible under the plan.
Plans submitted for Senate districts contained less difference. Each would likely retain Democratic majorities in the chamber, though the Democrats’ current 18-member supermajority would not be a given.
Which plans prevail, and how they’re altered along the way as the public and advocacy groups offer feedback, will be decided in the coming weeks. Lawmakers will hold 12 hearings beginning Sept. 8 in order to solicit input. Members of the public can also submit their own maps until Sept. 8 at 5 pm.
Advocates were already at work pressing their views Friday morning.
Labor-affiliated group Our Oregon issued a release saying Republicans were “brazenly attempting to gerrymander Oregon in a desperate bid to secure outsized influence…” The new group Fair Maps Oregon, which is aligned with Republican interests, held up Democrats’ proposal for congressional districts as “an example of just how extreme partisan gerrymandering in Oregon can be.”
That kind of rhetoric is not limited to outside groups. From the first moments of Friday morning’s hearing, some lawmakers suggested they were ready for confrontation.
“The current districts that we are living with are based upon partisan gerrymandering maps drawn to benefit the political party and the politicians in power at the expense of Oregonians,” said state Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, co-chair of the House Redistricting Committee. She added: “Our current districts have diluted the voices of Oregonians for two decades to advance one political party…”
Boshart Davis and other Republicans have raised this argument repeatedly in recent months, saying that sizable Democratic majorities were baked in when lawmakers passed the current maps in 2011. That year, control of redistricting was shared equally between the parties, and Republicans agreed to the maps. If the Legislature had failed to find agreement, the task would have been sent to then-Secretary of State Kate Brown.
“I think we demonstrated civility and worked together on a lot of issues, but particularly redistricting at that point in time,” Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron, who was the House Republican leader in 2011, told OPB recently. “It was a good accomplishment.”
But Republicans now say the 2011 plans were a bad deal. Members of both parties have told OPB that Democrats benefited from better data in 2011, and so were able to grasp how districts were likely to vote than Republicans.
On Friday, House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, suggested that both parties had agreed to the 2011 plan as a way to protect the incumbents currently sitting in the statehouse.
“There was a focus on incumbents and people who were currently serving having a lot of say in what their districts would look like moving forward,” Drazan told reporters. “We can’t do things the way they’ve done it in the past.”
But Democrats stand behind the current maps and are hoping to use them as a starting point as they make changes this year. Salinas, the House Democratic redistricting lead, shot back when Boshart Davis raised the specter of bias.
“With all due respect to my co-chair, repeating the false claim of gerrymandering doesn’t make it true,” Salinas said. “The maps that we’re basing our current maps on passed in 2011, and they were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support… There was no litigation, not complaints and the committees worked collaboratively to come up with fair maps.”
Under an order from the Oregon Supreme Court, lawmakers have until Sept. 27 to submit maps. If they cannot pass a plan, or a plan they do pass is vetoed by the governor, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat, will assume responsibility for drawing legislative districts. Congressional districts would be drawn by a judicial panel, under a process that lawmakers created in 2013.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Democrats have a three-fifths supermajority in the House.