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Politics & Government

Census Data Provide Glimpse Into Oregon Redistricting Process

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938 and is topped with a gilded bronze statue of the Oregon Pioneer.

Oregon lawmakers prepare for listening tour, special session to redraw state and congressional maps.

The path for Oregon’s political future for the next decade will be laid out over the next six weeks as the Legislature prepares to undertake one of its greatest responsibilities: drawing state and federal district maps that accurately represent the communities they serve.

It’s a process with far-reaching implications for both Congress and the state’s legislative body that will set the tone for five upcoming election cycles. With Oregon’s population having grown and the prospect of a new federal seat for either Democrats or Republicans, the weight of this moment is not lost on the 11 lawmakers selected by legislative leadership to serve on two committees overseeing the effort.

Oregon’s redistricting process is expected to put public input at its core. Lawmakers on the House and Senate redistricting committees are preparing to embark on a listening tour that will solicit opinions about how maps are drawn from communities across the state.

Whether the resurgence of COVID-19 and the delta variant force those meetings scheduled for the first few weeks in September to outdoor or virtual settings is yet to be determined, but the Legislature announced that constituents are being vigorously encouraged by both Democrats and Republicans to chime in at public hearings scheduled to begin Sept. 8.

As Democrats such as Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, co-chair of the House committee, promise a fair and transparent process, Republicans are committed to holding them to their word in drawing maps that create competitive state and federal races.

“Strong public participation can greatly reduce the risk of gerrymandering,” said Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, the House co-chair. “We can listen to (people’s) common interests and reflect that in the lines drawn.”

But according to Dr. Jack Miller, a political science professor at Portland State University, history and national context show that this process is inherently partisan. He said he believes the prospect of an additional Congressional seat for either party is sure to put pressure on both sides to advocate as strongly as possible on behalf of their constituents to secure a win.

“I don’t expect the Oregon Democratic Party not to make use of the process as it exists to benefit the Democratic Party. And the Republicans don’t either,” Miller said.

Salinas and her Senate counterpart Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, don’t subscribe to that idea.

With 2020 U.S. Census data hitting spreadsheets Thursday — delayed by six months due to the pandemic — in a garble of numbers and geographic information, both Salinas and Taylor are doubling down on the message that this process will in fact put Oregonians first no matter their voting affiliation.

The Legislature still awaits reformatted data from its geodatabase contractor ESRI that will allow both lawmakers and the public to use interactive web tools that apply redistricting criteria to draw their own maps and submit them as testimony. That reformatted data is expected to hit the Legislature’s webpage in the next several days.

Both Salinas and Taylor believe the public hearings and technology will provide ample opportunity for Oregonians to get involved in the process and ensure transparency.

“I think the fact that this is such an open process and it’s so transparent, that’s the basis for successful maps,” Salinas said. “I feel like we should be able to come to an agreement.”

What the data say about Oregon

A major caveat in how lawmakers and the public read the new census data released this week is that the pandemic factored heavily into last year’s count.

Experts have said the accuracy of the data could be skewed due to the Census Bureau stopping counts early and how nonresponse rates have grown. The bureau also announced it would not be producing the typical American Community Survey which breaks down the data in detailed numbers on demographics.

The census data released this week shows the state’s largest gains in population took place in Central Oregon’s Deschutes and Crook counties, with 26% and 18% growth, respectively.

In the metro area, Multnomah County grew by 10%, a population increase of approximately 80,000 residents. Washington County’s population increased by 13%, representing the addition of more than 70,000 new residents; and Clackamas County rounds out the region with a 12% gain of about 45,000.

Other notable areas of growth include Polk County, which grew by about 12,000 people for a 16% increase. Linn and Benton counties also saw significant growth at 11% and 10%, respectively, representing a combined addition of about 21,000 residents to the mid-Willamette Valley.

Grant County saw a change of -2.8%, the only county in the state to see a decrease in population. Both Harney and Malheur counties saw increases of 1% or less.

As a whole, Oregon’s population increased nearly 11% over the 2010 census, adding a little more than 406,000 residents in the past decade.

The new data also provide a glimpse into how Oregon’s demographics have shifted. According to the data, the state saw significant increases in every demographic except for white residents, which saw a 1% decline.

Oregon’s Black or African American population grew by 19%, the 14th largest gain in that demographic across the country representing more than 13,400 new residents.

American Indian and Alaska Native residents grew by 18%, while Oregon’s Asian population exploded by 38%, representing the addition of more than 53,000 people. That’s also true for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander residents whose population grew by 43%, adding another 5,800 people. Those who identified as an ethnicity not listed under the categories provided by the Census Bureau grew by 30%.

All of these demographic changes are increased when you count those who identify as more than one ethnicity, including white. White Oregonians who identify as white in combination with another demographic grew by 219%.

The process

Over the next six weeks, Lawmakers on the two committees will begin their listening tour through the state and gain context for how communities were formed, what areas have common interests and what transportation links such as roads and geographic features like rivers and mountain ranges provide boundaries that do and don’t make sense to use as guidelines when they begin drawing maps.

Those meetings initially only included Portland, Hillsboro/Beaverton, Salem, Eugene and Bend, but stops in Newport, Medford, Oregon City and Boardman were added after Republicans advocated for further input from less densely populated areas. A list of those dates and times can be found under the September calendar on the Legislature’s redistricting home page.

“The first set (of meetings) that was released only showed a slice, only a part, of Oregon,” Boshart Davis said. “So we pushed really hard to go beyond just Bend and I-5. We’re really happy to see that.”

According to Taylor, this input will be crucial to the committee’s understanding of how the culture and makeup of Oregon’s communities will play a role in drawing new lines that best represent them.

“It’s one thing to look at maps with mountain ranges, rivers, and roads,” she said. “Where we need feedback is what those things mean to individuals and in communities, and how those intersect with communities of interest. A water basin might not be significant in one area of the state, but it might be extremely important in another.”

Options for district maps drawn by the committees will be presented at those hearings for the public to comment on. People will also be able to submit their own maps drawn using the ESRI web mapping tool which will soon be available online.

Once that input is received, the committee will convene virtually for a week of meetings where they will also hold three virtual hearings on Monday, Sept. 13. Anyone from any corner of the state may appear at those hearings to give testimony.

The committees will then get to work using public input to re-craft the maps and draw lines that best fit each community and their interests before the full body convenes in a special session scheduled for the week of Sept. 20-24.

The Legislature has a deadline of Sept. 27 to vote on and submit its final maps for approval by Gov. Kate Brown. Should the governor veto the maps or if the Legislature cannot come to an agreement, the duty falls on the shoulders of Sec. of State Shemia Fagan’s office to draw the maps.

Fagan is in the process of establishing a “people’s” redistricting commission which looks similar to independent redistricting commissions created in states like California and Arizona. The difference here is that this commission would be advisory only, and the ultimate responsibility of drawing the maps would remain with Fagan.

She would have three weeks to complete the task if it comes to it, but her potential involvement provides an incentive for Republicans to keep control of the process within the Legislature’s hands.

Interest to create an independent redistricting commission in Oregon has grown over the past decade. A series of ballot initiatives over the past couple of years has aimed to put the question to voters whether or not Oregon should move in that direction, but have failed to gain traction.

While it’s too late for such an effort this time around, both Boshart Davis and House Republican Leader Christine Drazan expressed that they would support the establishment of an independent redistricting commission if it’s the will of Oregonians in the future.

Drazan said that it could be favorable to Oregonians if the power to redraw maps is taken away from those in power who are directly impacted. But she believes that parity on the House committee will provide a greater sense of accountability as the Legislature moves forward.

“That is a step in the right direction,” she said. “But what the public needs, what they deserve, is to have political lines drawn in a way that serves them, you know? Follows the rules, engages the public, listens to their input and draws maps responsive to these communities and not responsive to the people that are currently in power holding on to it.”

How data could affect the drawing of maps

On the House side, the redistricting committee includes three members of the Legislature’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) caucus who were essential in pushing for laws in this year’s session that advance opportunities and quality of life for BIPOC Oregonians.

Rep. Salinas, in concert with Rep. Khanh Pham, D-East Portland, and Rep. Wlnsvey Campos, D-Aloha, was central to the discussion that took place this year around addressing inequities in how Oregon provides services and creates avenues for Oregonians to succeed.

Salinas said that she’s interested in hearing from the voices of BIPOC Oregonians about how they’re represented in Salem.

Rep. Pham’s district — House District 46, which encompasses Southeast Portland’s “Jade District” with a diverse population comprising numerous Asian heritages —provides an interesting microcosm into how historical context might play a role.

According to Salinas, the 2011 redistricting effort took special interest in ensuring that communities within House District 46 were not fractured into pieces that diluted their representation.

She said the committee will be conscious of that fact in looking at how population gains and declines within certain demographics will affect the representation of Oregon’s BIPOC communities.

“Through COVID, we’ve seen these great disparities and inequities in our BIPOC population,” Salinas said. “For me, it’s really important that we hear from community voices why their communities of common interest should not be separated.”

But state and federal law sets out strict criteria for how districts are drawn. Oregon law says that a district must: be contiguous, be of equal population, utilize existing geographic or political boundaries; not divide communities of interest; and be connected by transportation links.

There are also certain tests that drawn lines must meet to comply with the U.S. Constitution and federal Voting Rights Act that looks at data on eligible voters and racial demographics.

Drazan said she does have concerns that the committee’s work is on pace to be unconstitutional.

“It’s the difference between drawing maps based on political sentiment, you know, your wish list of the values that you have,” she said. “We need to be really disciplined for how we approach these maps. This is not a process where we all just exert our political will on the rest of the state.”

A sixth congressional seat for Oregon

Although legislative seats in Salem are important, there is special importance placed on this year’s redistricting effort due to the sixth congressional seat Oregon is promised.

Just where that district will be drawn is still a question lawmakers aren’t willing to address openly quite yet.

“I think that Oregon is much more purple than the Legislature and our representation in Congress reflects,” Boshart Davis said.

Significant population gains in Central Oregon provide an intriguing opportunity to shift boundaries in a way that carve out the area around Bend into a new district. New residents in Washington County could also catch sight of a new district that encompasses parts of the metro area.

For Republicans, the focus will be on negotiating to ensure that whatever map comes out of the process provides the opportunity for the new seat to have a competitive race rather than gerrymandered lines that put the emphasis on Democratic voters.

“We know that if they aren’t competitive seats, that they are gerrymandered seats,” Drazan said. “If they approach the maps like any other bill and just want to get to 31-16 (votes) and get the Governor’s signature, nobody’s going to challenge it. That doesn’t serve Oregonians well.”

Drazan said she’d prefer to see districts that are drawn compact, not “long and stringy” with dovetails out into areas that have no common interest or geographic link to the communities they represent.

But Taylor said that’s not always so easy with the geographic makeup of the state.

“If Oregon was flat as a pancake and was a square box, it would be a lot different,” she said. “We have a bunch of geographical challenges.”

Despite minor squabbles over ensuring fairness of the process, Taylor believes the two committees are set up to work collaboratively and avoid major partisan battles in both committees and on each chamber floor.

“I really enjoy everybody that I’ve worked with, and I’ve become even more committed to the idea of why it is that the legislature was entrusted to do this,” she said. “I really hope that we can work together, and so far in the Senate, we’ve had great bipartisan cooperation.”

One piece of the discussion that Republicans and Democrats 100% agree on is that the process should be driven by the voices of Oregonians who these districts will represent for the next decade.

Drazan, Boshart Davis, Salinas and Taylor all expressed that this effort represents a heavy burden to do right by the people of Oregon, and not just those who are of voting age.

“We have a responsibility to Oregonians to put them first, and in this role, we have the opportunity to take that responsibility further,” Drazan said. “It’s an obligation where we serve people first, for the next 10 years, for people who don’t even live here yet, for kids in junior high now that are going to be voting and engaged in their civic life in this next decade.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting