A twist to the road to redistricting

Randy Stapilus
Randy Stapilus

Potential addition of sixth seat complicates legislative process

Oregon’s congressional redistricting is happening again, almost on schedule. And this time, it holds interest for new reasons, beyond its normal decade-long impact on political dynamics. 

Redistricting of the U.S. House of Representatives, done to ensure the 435 districts all feature somewhere near the same population, is dictated by the U.S. constitution. 

In Oregon, the state portion of the task has been undertaken for generations by the Legislature. Its members have redrawn the lines between the districts since the state was first awarded more than one district in 1892.

The changes from decade to decade have usually not been dramatic. Partly that’s because long stretches have passed between the addition of new districts. Oregon got its third district in 1913, fourth in 1943 and fifth in 1983.

But Oregon is due a sixth this year. It is the only Northwest state to be granted an additional district.

For several generations, Oregon has followed the same basic mapping pattern. One district would encompass Metropolitan Portland and another all or nearly all of the counties lying east of the Cascades.

Most of the population growth that resulted in new districts happened outside of Portland on the west side of the Cascades; in the past, a new district could once be carved out of that area relatively easily. However, the chore has become increasingly complex.

The remap based on the 1970 census assigned one district to the counties in the northwest portion of the state, including Yamhill (1); one to the east side, with parts of Clackamas, Marion and Linn included to give it sufficient population (2); one to Multnomah County (3); and one to the southwest portion of the state, from Lane County south (4).

A decade later, a new District 5 was created out of the eastern Clackamas, Marion and Linn territory, along with pieces of the northwest’s District 1 and southwest’s District 4. Multnomah remained mostly to itself in District 3, but some of the area around Medford was shifted into the east-side’s District 2 to even out the population.

In the four decades since, those contours have changed remarkably little.

Our District 1 has shrunk in square mileage due to explosive population growth in Washington County, but has remained anchored in the state’s northwest corner. District 5 has decreased somewhat, too, ceding territory in the Corvallis area to District 4 to compensate for rapid population growth in Clackamas County.

But the basic layout has not changed greatly since Oregon won a fifth district 40 years ago. You’d have to squint to see the difference, in fact, between the  maps preceding and following the 2010 census.

This new 2020 census almost certainly will shake things up, however, because Oregon overall appears to have added sufficient population to justify a sixth congressional district. The prospect is sure to be the object of intense database research by both major parties.

For two reasons, interest is even higher that might ordinarily be the case.

First, the U.S. House is closely divided, with Democrats holding a slim majority, so every seat is critically important. Second, Oregon’s new District 6 seat could plausibly go to either party, and a Democratic miscalculation could result in flipping one of the current five as well.

The question is, will Oregon’s House delegation over the next decade be five blue and one red, four blue and two red, or, worst case for the Democrats, deadlocked at three blue and three red.

Of the current House seats, four have been held throughout the last decade by Democrats, the GOP holding only the District 2 seat on Oregon’s east side. But the levels of party power are not the same in all five.

For a generation, the most solidly entrenched has been District 3, as it encompasses overwhelmingly Democratic Portland. There’s been no serious general election contest there in decades.

Next comes District 2, which spills over to the west side of the Cascades only to take in territory around Medford, the Jackson County seat. Republicans there have had no close-call general election races in a long time.

In the northwest, District 1 was somewhat competitive two decades ago, but has since turned heavily blue. Districts 4 and 5 have been represented consistently by Democrats for a couple of decades, but actually feature much closer partisan balances.

In 2016, District 4, represented by Democrat Peter DeFazio since 1987, featured the narrowest presidential margin in the nation between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, with Clinton prevailing by only 554 votes. And the count was only a little less close in 2020.

District 5 also features a relatively even balance. So small changes in the contours of either district could cause a flip, particularly if one of the incumbents were to retire.

The carving-out of a new District 6 complicates all of this.

After all, Oregon is a decisively but not overwhelmingly blue state. In the 2020 presidential contest, Democrat Joe Biden carried just 56.4% of the vote. Democratic contenders have consistently carried Oregon since 1988, but none of the winners have ever reached the 57% mark.

If Oregon has six congressional districts, how many might Republicans, all other things equal, expect to win? Probably two, which would mean a net one-seat gain for Republicans in the U.S. House.

Randy Stapilus is a former newspaper reporter and editor who has turned to writing and publishing books from a home base in Carlton. He has devoted his career to covering policies and government in Oregon and Washington and Idaho. In addition to producing books for himself and others through Ridenbaugh Press, he maintains a blog at www.ridenbaugh.com featuring political commentary. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

Again, though, things aren’t so clear-cut.

Much of the population growth has been in the Portland metro area, and it could be divided in a number of ways. Maps could be drawn, for example, to give Democrats smaller advantages in more districts. That could realistically serve to make the new district go Democrat or Republican, depending on the accuracy of the voting analyses and determination of the parties.

In some states, including neighboring Washington and Idaho, the remapping process is carried out by bipartisan commissions. But in Oregon, the job remains in the hands of the Legislature, which currently lies in the control of the Democratic Party.

When redistricting was done in 2011, control of the legislature was split. Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans and Democrats shared control in the House. The result was a measure of compromise and little change in boundaries.

This year, the process will probably be running late, because the final census returns are delayed. Democrats control the governorship, the Secretary of State’s Office and the Legislature, which could mean a strongly Democratic map gets pushed through on a tight timeframe. And that could give Democrats five of the state’s six House districts.

You can find similar results in a number of other states around the country, though mostly in cases benefiting Republicans. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina are prime examples.

In Oregon, Republicans don’t have the numbers in the strongly Democratic Legislature to pass their own remapping plan. However, they may, at least for a time, be able to slow the process with a tactic they’ve used in recent years on other issues — stage a walkout to deny one or both chambers a quorum.

There are some drawbacks with that strategy.

First, it probably won’t work forever: They can’t simply go into hiding for months or years on end.

Second, and more telling, should the Legislature fail to pass its own congressional redistricting plan, the job would pass to the courts. And th courts would be unlikely to toss the prevailing plan unless a significant legal problem arose.

Republicans might also consider another piece of Democratic leverage: If the Legislature should fail to adopt a congressional redistricting map, the other part of its assigned reapportionment work, that the job goes to the secretary of state — Democrat Shemia Fagan. And she would have wide latitude.

Democrats in the Legislature could also threaten to throw legislative districting to her if Republicans won’t cooperate on congressional redistricting. But legislative redistricting is a whole other story — and one that’s equally complicated.

Randy Stapilus is a former newspaper reporter and editor who has turned to writing and publishing books from a home base in Carlton. He has devoted his career to covering policies and government in Oregon and Washington and Idaho. In addition to producing books for himself and others through Ridenbaugh Press, he maintains a blog at www.ridenbaugh.com featuring political commentary. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.


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