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Oregon lawmakers are taking up political maps. Here’s what you need to know.

Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. Oregon's unique tax law sends money back to taxpayers whenever personal income tax revenues come in at least 2% above initial projections during a two-year budget cycle.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. Oregon's unique tax law sends money back to taxpayers whenever personal income tax revenues come in at least 2% above initial projections during a two-year budget cycle.

Oregon lawmakers are convening Monday morning with a hugely important political task ahead of them. If history is any guide, they’ll likely fail.

The task is redistricting, the once-a-decade partisan brawl where lawmakers debate how to redraw the state’s political districts for the next 10 years. The likely failure is scrawled across the last century. Since 1910, the state Legislature has succeeded in passing new maps only twice. The rest of the time, the task of redrawing boundaries moved onto the courts or the secretary of state.

But that’s no reason to tune out. The special session beginning Monday could set the course for who governs Oregon -- and with how firm a grip -- until 2033. It might dictate how the state absorbs an additional congressional district, and so help steer control of a tightly divided Congress.

Maybe most importantly, it could help decide who represents you in the state House, state Senate, and in Washington, D.C.

Here’s what you need to know about the redistricting session.

Redistricting is the process of reapportioning political districts that follows the once-a-decade census. Armed with minute figures that show how and where populations have grown in the last 10 years, its up to Oregon lawmakers to rejigger the state’s legislative and congressional maps to make sure districts contain roughly the same amount of people.

Since Oregon grew at a faster clip than many other states in the last 10 years, it’s also been granted a new seat in Congress -- its first in 40 years. That means lawmakers will put forward a plan to split the state into six districts with equal populations, rather than the current five.

The biggest requirement is that districts in the state House, state Senate, and U.S. House be equivalent in population. That’s especially true for congressional districts. But lawmakers have a lot of other statutory rules they need to follow in order to pass legal maps.

In Oregon, all Senate districts must contain exactly two House districts. Lawmakers are directed to draw districts that are contiguous, meaning they can’t be made up of disconnected parts. And they are supposed to take into account geographical boundaries like the Willamette River or Cascades, political boundaries like county and city lines, and transportation links like an interstate or major roadway.

Lawmakers also cannot unduly separate “communities of interest,” a term that can mean many things and so tends to be somewhat amorphous.

Importantly, Oregon political districts cannot be drawn to favor any political party or incumbent, a tactic known as gerrymandering. But the nature of redistricting is that political parties and interest groups frequently press plans that further their own interests, even as they argue they are merely doing their best to draw fair and legal maps.

To get to this point, two legislative committees -- one in the House, the other in the Senate -- held a series of 12 hearings earlier this month, to take testimony on a series of partisan proposals for how to draw new maps.

After considering that testimony, Democrats revealed a final set of proposals last week that differed slightly from their initial plans. That’s created questions about whether the parties can find agreement, or the whole session will fail.

Lawmakers will be considering two redistricting bills -- one for the state’s 90 legislative seats, one for the six congressional districts. Those bills are likely to originate in the Senate, where Democrats have a majority on the Senate Redistricting Committee, and should be able to pass any plan they like.

Things are more complicated in the House, where Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, granted Republicans parity on the House Redistricting Committee as part of a deal to end delay tactics during this year’s regular legislative session. That deal means that any bill will need at least one Republican vote in the committee to pass. As of last week, it was not clear that was possible.

House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, a member of the redistricting committee, said Friday her members were unwilling to support a Democrat proposal that could give control of five out of the state’s six congressional seats to Democrats. Republicans have been adamant that the map is a blatant gerrymander, and argue it does not reflect the balance of the state.

Agreement on legislative district boundaries also might be hard to find. House Republicans put forward their own maps this year that would have cut deeply into Democratic dominance in the House -- and which many left-leaning groups complained were out of step with political reality.

While Republicans offered an updated plan after public hearings, Democrats decided to move forward using maps created by Senate Democrats as a starting point.

“The rub for [House Republicans] was that we have not used their base map,” state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, a co-chair of the House Redistricting Committee, said Wednesday.

The proposed maps Democrats will ultimately put forward were the product of discussions between Democratic chairs of the two redistricting committees, Kotek, Senate President Peter Courtney, and Republicans, Salinas said.

“We’re the majority, so we are driving it,” she said.

Drazan on Friday called the proposal “a heavy-handed partisan map that is all about incumbency protection for a really strong, deep Democratic majority that they’re intent on holding for the next decade.”

Yes and no. Legislative leaders announced last week they would keep the Capitol open while the session is underway, marking the first time members of the public will be allowed into the building during a session since March 2020.

But this is hardly a return to more normal times. Lawmakers expect to hold committee hearings virtually, rather than in a hearing room with spectators. And galleries where the public can typically watch the Senate and House while in session will be closed off. Instead, visitors will be able to watch proceedings on closed-circuit television within the building.

Under state rules, everyone inside the Capitol must be masked.

That’s an unknowable question right now. If the two parties very clearly are not going to find the necessary agreement to pass a plan, it’s possible leaders could opt to end the session early. Or, if an agreement is reached on one or both bills, Republicans could agree to fast-track the process, wrapping up their business in one day.

Under normal rules, bills require three readings, on three separate days, in each chamber prior to a vote on the floor. So even if Democrats opt to muscle a bill through the Senate using their supermajority advantage, Republicans could refuse to waive the rules and draw the process out. That level of disagreement would appear to give the bill little chance of making it out of a House committee, and onto the floor of that chamber.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting