OPB | By Dirk Vanderhart
Lawmakers are required to take public testimony as they work up plans for new legislative and congressional districts that can dictate political power.
Lawmakers taking up the question of how to redraw Oregon’s legislative and congressional districts this year have decided not to take the show on the road.
As COVID-19 continues its alarming spread in the state, members of the Senate and House committees tasked with coming up with new political maps will instead hold required public hearings on potential maps in a virtual hearing format that has grown familiar.
“While the committees had hoped to visit communities across Oregon in person, the recent surge in COVID-19 cases has made this increasingly risky to public health,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said in a statement Monday. “More Oregonians are now in our hospitals, intensive care units, or on ventilators than ever before in this pandemic.”
The announcement is not entirely surprising. Chairs of the Senate and House redistricting committees in recent days had voiced uncertainty about whether they would be able to hold in-person public hearings as they have in past redistricting years.
Under state law, legislators are required to hold “at least 10 public hearings at locations throughout the state” before proposing new maps. They’re also encouraged to hold five hearings once maps have been proposed. The law explicitly encourages use of video technology to allow people in far-flung areas to testify.
This year, lawmakers are facing an uncharacteristically rushed time table. Delays at the U.S. Census Bureau meant that states only received detailed population data required for redrawing maps this month, roughly six months late.
As a result Oregon lawmakers have already had to breach constitutional requirements for getting maps completed by July 1. With the blessing of the Oregon Supreme Court, the Legislature now has until Sept. 27 to pass a new plan.
Even so, the Legislature appears set to hold more than the required number of public hearings.
The two legislative redistricting committees held 10 virtual meetings to take testimony from the public in March and April — two hearings apiece for the state’s five congressional districts. While citizens in those hearings did not have access to final census data, they were able to advocate for cultural communities or geographic areas they believe should be united into certain political districts.
Lawmakers now plan to unveil a set of draft maps on Sept. 3, before a series of 12 more virtual public hearings from Sept. 8-13. Of key interest in those maps, and the discussion that follows, will be how lawmakers propose drawing a new, sixth congressional district the state was granted this year.
Citizens have a way to offer input beyond testifying remotely. They can use the Legislature’s district mapping tool to create their own proposed maps for state House and Senate districts, as long as they meet legal requirements for how those districts are arranged.
The once-a-decade redistricting process comes with high political stakes. The outcome of new legislative and congressional maps can dictate which party holds sway in Oregon, and help determine control of Congress.