Redistricting Presents an Extra Challenge to Legislature

Along with the first evenly divided House of Representatives in history, and one of the worst budget situations in recent memory, the Oregon state legislature has another hurdle it must overcome: The once-a-decade redistricting that follows the U.S. Census.

The Census Bureau must deliver population data to states for redistricting by April 1, 2011. In Oregon, the regions with the highest growth, and therefore the biggest need for redistricting, are likely to be Portland suburbs and Central Oregon near Bend. The state was 33,000 residents short of gaining a sixth Congressional District, but the lines for the five current districts likely will shift most dramatically around Portland.

Legislators get the first crack at redrawing district lines for the Oregon House and Senate, as well as U.S. Congress. For each legislative body, districts must have roughly an equal number of residents. Lawmakers have failed more often than not in state history to produce a consensus redistricting plan.

The majority party usually tries to leverage redistricting for partisan gain by drawing lines around chunks of supportive voters. With no majority in the Oregon House, Republicans and Democrats may be forced to work together to find a bipartisan agreement on district boundaries.

If the legislature can't agree, Secretary of State Kate Brown, a Democrat, will redraw the lines for the state's districts. That might be the motivation Republicans need to try to find compromise in the legislature. Congressional districts would be decided by a state or federal court in the event the legislature can't agree. It has until July 1, 2011 to complete redistricting.

Oregon's most recent redistricting in 2001 is well-remembered for a cynical parliamentary maneuver by Republicans, who held a majority in the House, that would have allowed them to pass a redistricting plan without the need for the governor's signature. House Democrats stayed away from the Capitol for several days during the session so there wouldn't be the quorum the chamber needed to bring the plan up for a vote. When the plan didn't pass, then-Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, a Democrat, produced a plan the Republicans didn't like.

House Democrats and Republicans currently are negotiating a power-sharing agreement for next session, and redistricting is on the table, according to Democrat leader Dave Hunt of Gladstone. He told The Oregonian that the two parties have agreed to a bipartisan effort to redraw district lines.

Allegations of "gerrymandering" run rampant in any redistricting process. Gerrymandering, the act of redrawing district lines for partisan advantage, was named for Elbridge Gerry. He was the governor of Massachusetts in 1812 when he signed a bill authorizing the creation of a legislative district shaped like a salamander.

This year, conservative activist Ross Day led the charge to place an initiative on the November 2 ballot that would have amended the Oregon constitution and replaced the current redistricting system with a bipartisan commission composed of retired circuit court judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court. The amendment was supported by several large business groups, but initiative supporters failed to gather enough valid signatures.

Jeff Mapes at The Oregonian has some interesting information about the history of Oregon's redistricting, and about Oregon's 1st Congressional District, which will experience a lot of change.