FILE — Oregon Supreme Court building

The Oregon Supreme Court building in Salem, Oregon 

(The Center Square) – A Friday ruling from the Oregon Supreme Court handed a win to state lawmakers who want to wait on redrawing Oregon's political map.

Under its constitution, Oregon gives its state lawmakers the right to redraw the state's legislative and congressional lines. The political process decides who state lawmakers will represent in their districts for the next decade and is traditionally conducted based on the latest population data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Its completion is up to two bipartisan committees in the House and Senate, which remain under Democratic control. The secretary of state must forge a plan if the state legislature fails to act or if their plan is vetoed by the governor.

Oregon's redistricting efforts were thrown into chaos in February when the U.S. Census Bureau announced it would push back the release of its 2020 data to sometime in mid-August to early September, months after the state legislature's constitutional deadline of July 1 and the secretary of state's August 15 deadline.

The debacle spurred two proposals, one from Secretary of State Shemia Fagan and another from state legislative leaders.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, filed a request to the state Supreme Court to delay redistricting until September 27 giving lawmakers the time to complete the process using the U.S. Census Bureau data. Fagan, concerned with the prospect of upending the 2022 midterm elections, requested that the court allow lawmakers to meet the state's constitutional deadline using population data from Oregon universities. 

On Friday, the Oregon Supreme Court sided with Courtney and Kotek's petition. The opinion, issued by Oregon Chief Justice Walters, would keep the process in the state legislature where many of its GOP members believe it ought to be.

“We have had a good working relationship among the Senate members of the committee,” state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, vice-chair of the Redistricting Committee, said in a statement. “Election integrity and fair districts live to fight another day because of this decision. It ensures that we can continue to work together to ensure that Oregonians can pick their representatives fairly.”

Many of their Democratic colleagues agreed on Friday, saying the U.S. Census Bureau was the most trustworthy means of redistricting the state.

“The principle of ‘one person, one vote’ is fundamental to our democracy and the entire undertaking of redistricting,” said state Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, chair of the Senate Committee on Redistricting. “Now that the Supreme Court has granted an extension to the deadline, the Legislature can protect that principle by using the accurate and detailed population counts and demographic information from the 2020 Census data as the foundation for our redistricting.”

As a result of the Oregon Supreme Court's revised deadline, state lawmakers will meet later this year for an emergency special session to produce a redistricting plan. In the event that the legislature does not enact new legislative districts by September 27, Fagan must enact new legislative districts by October 18.

In a statement, Fagan expressed no hard feelings over the state Supreme Court's Friday ruling.

“Our agency's core objectives were to prevent moving the 2022 election dates and to preserve robust public input by starting the process with available population data," Fagan said. "We appreciate that the Oregon Supreme Court thoughtfully adopted both of our objectives."

If early projections from last summer prove true, Oregon stands to gain one more seat in Congress as the state's population booms. The state's left-leaning areas also stand to pick up more voters. Current state population estimates show northwest Oregon is poised to gain as many as 30,000 people, namely in the urban Portland metro region, the Willamette Valley, and upper coastal areas. Oregon's rural regions to the east stand to lose as many people. 

Oregon Democrats hold an overwhelming majority in the state legislature this session. In the House, Democrats boast a 37-23 majority and an 18-11 majority in the Senate where one independent member sits.

Those numbers are not enough for Democrats to fend off walkout protests from their Republican colleagues over the past two years. One bill in the Senate would call on voters to amend the state constitution allowing state lawmakers to convene with a simple majority rather than the current two-thirds majority it is bound by now.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.