Legislators, secretary of state go to court over redistricting
Oregon lawmakers and the secretary of state outlined their next steps on the redrawing of legislative and congressional district lines, even though census-block data critical to the process will not be available for six more months.
Meanwhile, some Republican lawmakers and others have called for an independent commission to do the redrawing, although it would take a statewide vote to change the state constitutional requirements for legislative redistricting.
The pandemic-related delay in data by the U.S. Census Bureau has prompted legislative leaders, the redistricting committees and Secretary of State Shemia Fagan to present official requests to the Oregon Supreme Court, which is the final arbiter of both plans.
Legislative and congressional district boundaries must be redrawn in the odd-numbered-year session after each 10-year census to ensure their populations are equal. The standard for congressional districts is stricter than for legislative districts.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, asked the justices on Wednesday, March 10, to allow lawmakers 90 days after the data is delivered to come up with plans. The bureau now estimates delivery of data around Sept. 30, so that would put completion by the end of this year.
"We will need to keep doing the impossible as we build back and recover. Today we made an extraordinary request of the Oregon Supreme Court after an extraordinary year," the leaders said in a joint statement.
"While the secretary of state is named as a defendant in this petition, we want to be clear that this is part of the normal process for seeking relief from the courts. We all share the need for clarity on how to proceed in these unprecedented times."
The redistricting committees have begun joint hearings to seek public comment, starting with the congressional districts. Oregon's five current districts will have to shrink if, as expected, the state is awarded a sixth House district as a result of the 2020 Census. Federal officials have said the apportionment of U.S. House seats should be known by April 30.
At the request of the redistricting committees, the legislative leaders and others who sit on a joint committee asked the Legislature's lawyers to hire an outside counsel to represent them in proceedings before the Supreme Court. The Portland law firm of Markowitz Herbold was chosen on Feb. 19.
A different view
Under the Constitution, lawmakers have until July 1 to complete a legislative plan. Under state law, they have until July 1 to complete a congressional plan. The secretary of state assumes responsibility if lawmakers fail to complete a legislative plan, and the high court names a special panel if lawmakers fail to complete a congressional plan.
Fagan issued a statement of her own later. She said she agrees that lawmakers should have the first shot at redrawing the boundaries, but their proposed timetable is likely to disrupt both the filing deadlines and the date of the 2022 primary election, which under normal circumstances would be May 17. (After completion of redistricting maps, no matter who does them, the Constitution and state law allow time for legal challenges.)
"I have consulted with our elections director and the county clerks. I share their concerns that disrupting 2022 election dates would lead to a significant disruption and voter confusion over next year's elections," Fagan said.
"We have shared these concerns with legislative leadership and will be presenting the court with a simpler option that preserves the constitutional duty of the legislature to do redistricting but in a manner that is timely and does not disrupt Oregon's 2022 elections."
Fagan has proposed that lawmakers use less precise data than the U.S. Census to redraw districts. But that would depart from previous practice and the resulting maps could be challenged. Oregon does not specify that U.S. Census data must be used to redraw either map, although the Senate Redistricting Committee was advised by legal counsel Feb. 8 that Oregon has not done it any other way.
New push for commission
Meanwhile, Republicans — who are in the minority in both chambers — called for an independent commission to redraw the legislative and congressional district lines.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby and Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis of Albany, the top Republican on the House Redistricting Committee, were joined in a virtual event by former Rep. Jeff Barker, a Democrat from Aloha who retired this year after 18 years, and Andrew Kaza of Manzanita, chair of the Independent Party.
Drazan said in a statement:
"Oregon voters should choose their politicians; politicians shouldn't choose their voters. It's a conflict of interest. The independent commission we're proposing would ensure the accountability and transparency that Oregonians deserve for fair representation from their lawmakers."
As written, House Joint Resolution 7 would propose the change for the 2022 general election ballot.
A coalition led by the League of Women Voters of Oregon and Common Cause Oregon sought to qualify a similar ballot measure for the 2020 general election but came up short of the required signatures.
They went to federal court in an effort to force state officials to accept a drastically lower number of signatures they gathered before the pandemic — about 40% of the constitutional requirement — or extend the time for them to gather that number. They won initially in U.S. District Court, but after the state appealed, a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back, and it was too late to resolve the dispute before the 60-day deadline prior to the Nov. 3 election.
Advocates of the measure recently renewed their challenge for the 2022 general election. They are seeking a lower threshold than the 117,578 voter signatures normally required to qualify a constitutional amendment for a statewide election. The number is 8% of the votes cast for governor in 2018.
The deadline for submitting signatures for initiative measures is in July 2022.
NOTE: Clarifies what Secretary of State Shemia Fagan has proposed as an alternative, and recounts what a Senate committee was told about alternatives at a Feb. 8 meeting.
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