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Oregon Supreme Court floats hurried-up timeline for redrawing political maps

As Oregon lawmakers seek to skirt constitutional deadlines for redrawing political districts in the state this year, they’re now prepared to move at warp speed.

In court filings last week, the Legislature agreed to a proposed schedule that would give it as little as two weeks from the time it receives final census data to the time it must complete new boundaries for the state’s 60 House districts and 30 Senate districts.

That hurried-up timeline — a far cry from the three months lawmakers initially asked for — was floated by the Oregon Supreme Court, which is in the process of deciding whether it has the authority to allow lawmakers to miss redistricting deadlines set in the state constitution.

Under the schedule proposed by the court, the Legislature would have until mid-October to redraw legislative districts. That’s two weeks after the Sept. 30, the date U.S. Census Bureau says it will likely provide states with completed population data. These population counts are being distributed belatedly after long delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the Supreme Court’s proposal would redraw districts more than three months after the July 1 deadline to complete the maps, set by the Oregon Constitution.

“Implementing this Court’s tentative amended deadlines is the least disruptive option, given the extraordinary Census data delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Legislature’s attorney wrote in a March 26 filing , “and is the only option that ensures that all of the parties responsible for reapportionment—including the Legislative Assembly—are able to exercise their constitutional role in the reapportionment process.”

The proposed timeline by Supreme Court justices is the latest twist in Oregon’s struggle to figure out how to do the weighty political job of redistricting in a year when data delays are upending hard constitutional dates. The once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative and congressional districts helps dictate who holds political control of the state for the next 10 years.

Seeking leeway to get around the deadlines in the constitution, legislative leaders filed suit earlier this month. In a complaint naming Secretary of State Shemia Fagan as a defendant, the Legislature asked the court to give it three months from the time it received census data to draw maps — a process that could have seen new maps completed in late December.

Fagan, meanwhile, opposed that idea. The secretary has responsibility for drawing or correcting maps if lawmakers fail to pass a legal redistricting plan, but she’s also worried that pushing back redistricting would require huge changes in the timeline of the 2022 primary election. In an answer to the Legislature’s lawsuit, the secretary said that lawmakers didn’t need to wait until census data arrived to redraw districts.

She argues that the Population Research Center at Portland State University has accurate enough population data to allow the Legislature to draw districts that have equal enough populations to pass legal muster. Under Fagan’s proposed plan, lawmakers would use that data to complete maps by the first of July. If they later needed to be rejiggered, she said, there would be time to do so.

To pave the way for that plan, the Secretary of State’s Office has inked a deal with Portland State University, agreeing to pay up to $68,105 for data to be delivered by June 15, two weeks ahead of the normal constitutional deadline.

“We have a lot more data out there than people are aware of,” said Ethan Sharygin, director of the Population Research Center. “Nothing we can do can supplant or replace the census. We’re huge boosters of the census. That said, we do have some other great data sources…”

The Supreme Court’s proposed schedule is something of a middle ground between the two proposals.

The proposal would require lawmakers to submit their proposal for new district maps Oct. 14. That’s just two weeks after the Sept. 30 date that the Census Bureau has given for likely delivery of completed data, but that September date is likely not the first clear picture state officials will have of the 2020 census. The Census Bureau announced earlier this month that it would get population data out to states beginning in August — just in a somewhat less user-friendly format.

Lawmakers argue that increases the likelihood they will be ready with a new redistricting plan by Oct. 14. And they say the court’s timeline minimizes disruptions to the 2022 elections, though some deadlines would need to be changed.

“The Legislative Assembly can reapportion based on 2020 Census data and the remaining constitutional process can play out, albeit with adjusted timelines,” the Legislature’s attorney wrote in the March 26 court filing. “And the primary election schedule, with a few exceptions, remains intact.”

Fagan, who is being represented in the matter by the Oregon Department of Justice, said her plan is still better.

“The Secretary supports initially using non-census data to draw maps that can subsequently be evaluated—and revised if necessary—in light of the census,” an attorney representing the Secretary of State’s Office wrote in response to the court’s proposed schedule. “The Secretary continues to believe that this approach will achieve the most timely and accurate solution to this difficult problem, without requiring this court to significantly rewrite the Oregon Constitution.”

Under the court’s proposed schedule, Fagan would have a week — as opposed to six weeks under the state constitution — to draw maps if the Legislature fails to do so. She says such a short time frame might require her to “conduct public hearings and create her own redistricting map at virtually the same time as the Legislative Assembly is conducting public hearings and deliberating its own redistricting plan.”

“This is likely to create public confusion,” the filing said.

The Oregon Supreme Court has not yet formally concluded that it even has authority to alter constitutional deadlines, let alone what those altered deadlines will be. According to a spokesman for the court, there is no specific time frame for justices to reach a decision.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting