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Oregon starts wrestling over new congressional district

September 3, 2021 GMT

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — With Oregon getting an additional congressional seat based on population growth, Republican and Democratic state lawmakers on Friday presented dueling visions on where that new district should be.

The Oregon House interim committee on redistricting, evenly split with three Democrats and three Republicans, also offered vastly different maps on how the existing five U.S. House of Representative districts in Oregon should be drawn.

Four of Oregon’s House seats in Congress are currently held by Democrats while one has long been held by a Republican.

The Democrats’ map says new congressional District 6 should be south of Portland, Oregon’s biggest city, and west of Interstate 5. Republicans also put it south of Portland, but on the east side of the interstate.

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Expanding Oregon’s number of U.S. House seats from five to six won’t necessarily be a win for Democrats, who control the state politically.

The new district would be safely Democratic under the Democrats’ map and competitive under the Republican map, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, a website that gets its name from the number of Electoral College members and which focuses on opinion poll analysis, politics and other topics.

The maps were released with little fanfare. The proposed placement of the six congressional districts were not discussed by the interim committee members, who met remotely by video. A series of virtual public hearings about redrawing the districts will start next Wednesday.

Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, a Republican and co-chair of the interim redistricting committee, accused Democrats of having in the past conducted gerrymandering — which is the manipulation of electoral district boundaries to win an unfair political advantage.

“Our current districts have diluted the voices of Oregonians for two decades to advance one political party and incumbent politicians,” Boshart said during Friday’s meeting.

Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Democrat and fellow co-chair of the interim committee, contested the allegation.

“With all due respect to my co-chair, repeating the false claim of gerrymandering doesn’t make it true,” Salinas said. “The maps that we’re basing our current maps on passed in 2011, and they were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.”

One of the biggest map redraws came from the Democrats, whose draft plan would expand U.S. House District 3 — currently squeezed between Portland’s eastern suburbs and the Columbia River — toward the southeast, all the way to the edge of the central Oregon town of Bend.

The Republican map squeezes District 3 even closer to the river that marks the Washington state line, to allow for the new District 6 to fit into the electoral boundary puzzle.

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In a normal redistricting year, the redistricting process would likely have been completed by this time. But the coronavirus pandemic caused delays in the release of U.S. Census Bureau data required to draw new maps. The redistricting data, culled from the 2020 census, was released last month — four months later than expected.

The redistricting numbers that states use for redrawing congressional and legislative districts show where white, Asian, Black and Hispanic communities grew over the past decade.

Steady population growth — driven by newcomers from other states — is giving Oregon greater national political clout. U.S. Census Bureau figures released in April showed the state’s population increased by 10% over the past decade. Oregon as a result got an additional congressional district for the first time in 40 years.

For state legislative districts, there is a set number of districts, so lawmakers can only move the boundary lines and the legislators’ districts must be equal in population. Congressional districts are added and subtracted to states based on population and also must be equal in population.

State legislative Democrats, who overwhelmingly control the Legislature, agreed to give up an advantage in redrawing the state’s political districts for the next 10 years in exchange for a Republican commitment to stop blocking legislation in the state Legislature with delay tactics.

The deal gives Republicans more say over what the boundaries for 90 legislative districts will look like and increases the GOP’s influence on how to divide the state into congressional districts.

The Legislature has until Sept. 27 to complete the redistricting process.

If lawmakers fail to pass new legislative boundaries by then, the task will fall to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a progressive Democrat. Lawmakers have succeeded in passing a legal redistricting plan just twice since 1911.

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Cline, who reported from Portland, Oregon, is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.