Oregon lawmakers went down to the wire Monday when they approved majority Democrats’ new congressional and legislative district maps with party-line votes just hours ahead of deadline.
Their actions, made possible when House Republicans ended a boycott that stalled redistricting action on Saturday, made Oregon the first state in the nation to pass both congressional and legislative maps.
Only time will tell if it turns out to be the last time lawmakers redraw Oregon’s electoral lines: On Tuesday, a coalition of good government groups, business associations and the Independent and Progressive parties announced they will try to get a ballot measure before voters in 2022 to create an independent redistricting commission. It would draw new lines in 2023 as well as after future censuses.
“The promise of fair representation should not be a pawn in a partisan political game,” said Norman Turrill, chair of the People Not Politicians campaign and former president of the League of Women Voters of Oregon.
Oregon’s redistricting process held importance nationally as it is one of just six states to gain at least one congressional seat in this redistricting cycle, as a result of higher-than-average population growth in recent decades. It’s the only state of those six in which Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature and the governorship.
Oregon’s Democrats and Republicans both faced the decision whether to prioritize getting a favorable congressional map or favorable state House and Senate maps, due to the mechanics of Oregon’s redistricting system. If lawmakers had failed to agree or Republicans had continued their boycott, a five-judge panel would have drafted new congressional districts and Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan would have redone the state’s 90 legislative districts. There was the potential the judicial panel would draw a congressional plan less tilted toward Democrats than the highly party-favoring maps the Democrats drew. Meanwhile, both some Democrats and some Republicans acknowledged Fagan would likely have issued state House and Senate maps more to Democrats’ liking than the not-very-partisan ones Democratic lawmakers drew with Republican input.
In the end, Democrats passed a congressional plan with three super safe Democratic seats, one super safe Republican seat, one seat that tilts in Democrats’ favor and one seat that is a virtual 50-50 tie in terms of how its voters have sided in key Republican-Democratic match-ups since 2015, according to an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive. The district that will have nearly even Democratic-Republican match-ups includes fast-growing Bend, where expected Democratic growth could make the district bluer over the next decade.
It was a compromise Democrats offered Republicans late last week, after insisting throughout September that the original map they drafted — which would almost certainly have led to five Democrats and just one Republican winning seats in the U.S. House — should pass without even technical tweaks in spite of testimony from hundreds of Oregonians, much of it critical of aspects of the plan. That would have given Democrats 83% of the seats, while President Joe Biden collected just 56% of Oregonian’s votes in his winning 2020 race. Public critiques ranged from the maps splitting up Black voters and cultural institutions in Multnomah County to their including Portland-area neighborhoods in districts with broad swaths of rural Oregon.
The Democrats’ revised congressional maps didn’t extend the Portland-heavy 3rd District held by Rep. Earl Blumenauer across the Cascades to rural Madras, and it kept the historically Black Albina neighborhood in Portland in the same district with neighborhoods further east where many Black families now live. Still, Republicans objected to Democrats’ compromise map, pointing out it could lead to the same outcome as Democrats’ original one: a 5-1 power split.
On Tuesday evening, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a Democrat who now promotes independent redistricting commissions and other reforms through the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, wrote on Twitter that “Oregon’s compromise map is just that—a compromise from both parties. Importantly, the map reflects the state’s diverse communities, preserves a competitive seat, and shows that public input was considered.”
As for Oregon’s new legislative districts, they will likely allow Democrats to maintain their supermajorities in the state House and Senate and even expand their power, particularly in the Senate, according to an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive. However, the districts on balance are fairly representative of Oregonians’ voting patterns. They also manage to put nearly all 90 state representatives and senators in districts where they have a good chance at reelection, although state law admonishes lawmakers not to draw political lines to benefit “any political party, incumbent legislator or other person.”
Still, some lawmakers who ended up doubled up in districts with other incumbents will face tough decisions about whether to run in a primary against another incumbent from the same party or a general election against a fellow lawmaker from the opposing party.
Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem and the only lawmaker of Latina heritage in her caucus, will be in a blue leaning district with Democratic Rep. Brian Clem of Salem. Clem, one of two House Democrats who voted against the plan Monday, announced during his floor speech that he will retire at the end of his term next year due to personal and family health issues. Clem lavished praise on Moore-Green, who he said saved the Salem City Club and “cast many courageous votes that some of you wouldn’t even notice …”
Clem said while the House and Senate plans overall are good, he disagreed with the difficult and partisan process of drafting them, which he alleged involved “people trying to draw people out of districts that are legitimate …”
Democrats’ plan also puts two Democratic incumbents, both Portland area physicians, in the same House district: Reps. Maxine Dexter and Lisa Reynolds. And Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, will be in a competitive district with a potentially 4.4-percentage point Republican advantage along with Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, according to the newsroom’s analysis.
Earlier this year, Wilde cited his current House District as a blatant example of past gerrymandering. He continued to raise similar concerns about this year’s redistricting proposals, noting in an email to House Democrats last week that the Eugene precinct he lives in was the only one in Oregon’s second-largest city included in the new district that is largely rural and Republican.
Throughout the weeklong special session, Democrats reiterated that their plans complied with Oregon law and the state constitution. Senate redistricting committee chair Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, said of Democrats’ initial congressional plan that several analyses found was clearly tilted to her party, “It is a fair and balanced map.” Rep. Wlnsvey Campos, D-Aloha, a member of the House congressional redistricting committee, said in a speech on the House floor Monday that Democrats’ congressional districts plan meets “the highest legal standards…”
They may be correct, given past high court rulings that set a very high bar for showing that a map has been drawn unfairly. The Oregon Supreme Court, in a 2001 redistricting case, pointed out state law simply says lawmakers or the secretary of state must “consider” eight district-drawing criteria including existing geographic or political boundaries, transportation links and that no district shall be drawn to favor an incumbent or political party.
“Consequently, this court will void a reapportionment plan only if we can say from the record that the secretary of state either did not consider one or more criteria or, having considered them all, made a choice or choices that no reasonable secretary of state would have made,” the court ruled in the case, which pertained to legislative districts drawn by then-Democratic Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. “A party challenging a reapportionment plan has the burden to show that one of those circumstances is present.”
The court could soon hear a fresh test of Oregon’s redistricting laws. In a press release issued after lawmakers finished work Monday with the headline “Rigged redistricting process fails Oregon,” House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby predicted someone will soon file such a challenge. “The illegal congressional map adopted (Monday), clearly drawn for partisan benefit, will not survive legal challenge,” Drazan said.