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What’s behind Oregon’s new Congressional map and how does it affect Southern Oregon?

The Congressional map passed by the Oregon legislature's Democratic majority on Monday, Sept. 27.
The Congressional map passed by the Oregon legislature's Democratic majority on Monday, Sept. 27.

Oregon is nearing the end of a contentious redistricting process. That’s where the local and congressional political maps are redrawn to account for population changes with the last census. JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with Southern Oregon University’s Shawn Patterson, an assistant professor of political science, about the redistricting process and what it could mean for Southern Oregon.

Erik Neumann: On a really basic level, how do these new maps get drawn?

Shawn Patterson: How maps get drawn varies pretty dramatically from state to state. Some states use the state legislatures, some use independent commissions. Here in Oregon the state legislators themselves draw the maps.

EN: I've heard people say that the Rogue Valley and the Medford area is kind of an odd place to include in congressional districts, because it's neither the coastal district to the west of us necessarily or is it kind of similar to the high desert 2nd District to the east of us. So, based on how these maps are shaping up, or this main map that we're thinking about right now, where does the Rogue Valley sort of fit into these new proposals?

SP: The Rogue Valley, all of Josephine and Jackson counties, are going to be in the overwhelmingly safe, Republican eastern district. I sat with the online app that allows me to drag the district lines around and was trying to come up with hypotheticals that would have put all Ashland, Talent, Phoenix Medford, Grants Pass, like that whole kind of corridor in the western district and it becomes really hard to do when you're trying to balance that population without dramatically changing the shape of the districts further north. And because there's just a higher density of population in the north, they're less concerned with moving these areas in and out.

EN: One term that people might be hearing a lot right now is gerrymandering. Can you give just a brief description of what that is and how that plays out in Oregon?

SP: Gerrymandering is kind of this catch-all pejorative phrase for drawing the maps in ways that have explicit political benefits. It's very easy to think of it in partisan terms, you know, you draw the districts in such a way that Democrats in control of the legislature and the governorship, if they're going to do a partisan gerrymandering, they're going to try and draw these districts in ways that maximize the number of Democrats that get elected.

EN: Would you say that it's blatantly gerrymandered one way or the other in Oregon?

SP: I would say, in 2020 Democrats got 57% of the vote in congressional races. And the map that's going to come out if this state plan goes through, is going to give the Democrats at least four safe seats and probably a fifth seat, which is, fairly unrepresentative of that distribution of votes. So, in that light, you can see it as a partisan gerrymander. On the other hand, there was this study done in Massachusetts where they found that, Massachusetts is about a 60% Democratic state, 40% Republican state. And they used a very big computer to draw every possible map of Massachusetts you could. And I even got the quote [from the study]: “Though there are more ways of building a valid districting plan than there are particles in the galaxy, every single one of them would produce a 9 to 0 Democratic delegation.” You can look at these partisan outcomes and it can seem unrepresentative of the state, but it really just depends upon how your population is distributed in your state. If it's uniformly 55% Democratic, no matter how you divide up those districts, every district is going to elect a Democrat. And Oregon happens to have a fairly uniform distribution of Democratic voters on the western half of the state, which makes it much easier for these disparities to emerge.

EN: Shawn Patterson, assistant professor of political science at Southern Oregon University, thanks so much for making the time today.

SP: Thank you so much for having me.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.