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Redistricting hearings start despite no maps, no data and uncertain future
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Redistricting hearings start despite no maps, no data and uncertain future

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STOCK State capitol 18

Despite no redistricting maps or data to show voters, the Legislature is moving ahead this week with hearings on plans for redrawing 2020 political districts.

Ten hearings are planned, two for each congressional district. First up is the 1st Congressional District in northwest Oregon on Tuesday, then the 2nd Congressional District that covers all of Oregon east of the Cascades on Wednesday.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative and congressional districts. The U.S. Census Bureau has said the pandemic made collection of population data difficult or impossible at times.

The data was required by federal law to be sent to the states by April 1 to begin drawing maps. Now it will not arrive until Sept. 30.

The unprecedented delay has set off a constitutional crisis in Oregon and at least 23 other states.

The autumn delivery date will be well beyond all of Oregon's constitutional and statutory deadlines for submitting maps. Both the Legislature and the Secretary of State, which have authority to draw maps at different points during the usual process, are shut out by the drawn-out timeline.

The fate of 60 House, 30 Senate and five or six congressional districts is headed to the Oregon Supreme Court.

The Legislature has decided to go ahead with the 10 legally mandated hearings. Though two are focused on each congressional district, they also deal with legislative boundaries as well.

"We will be proceeding as if we’ll get an extension from the Oregon Supreme Court or whatever else it takes to get the job done," said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Porltand, a senior Democratic lawmaker.

The pandemic has also turned the every-10-year "road show" of hearings in into a series of virtual hearings.

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Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature are uniting to ask the Oregon Supreme Court to reset the clock on delays and give the Legislature a shot at drawing the maps for the 2022 election. If the block-by-block data needed to create districts that meet federal and state civil rights laws becomes available Sept. 30, lawmakers want up to 60 days to draw the maps and submit them to the governor for approval.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said last week that if the courts agree, the Legislature would return in the fall for a special session to handle redistricting.

The request to send the mapping back to lawmakers has bipartisan support.

Democrats have the upper hand in shaping the district maps to their liking. The biggest prize is the sixth congressional district that Oregon is expected to receive, it's first in 40 years. The U.S. Census Bureau has said it will officially notify states of their gain or loss in the 435-member U.S. House by April 30.

While Democrats would be in the driver's seat for redistricting, Republicans want the maps drawn and debated in the Legislature. It gives the minority party a chance to call attention to districts it deems unfair.

“This is one of the most important opportunities to participate in when it comes to our Constitutional Republic," said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, a member of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

Knopp said the hearings "will give people the ability to advocate for districts that represent our community and to help ensure that the districts are drawn with an open and transparent process."

The other scenarios would be for Secretary of State Shemia Fagan to draw the legislative district, while a five-judge panel would be appointed to draw congressional districts. Most of that work would be behind closed doors. If the Oregon Supreme Court decides to have courts redraw the lines, that would also shut out lawmakers from voicing their opinions.

Under normal circumstance, the Legislature would have received the necessary data by April 1. It would then have until the end of the current regular legislative session on July 1 to send maps to Gov. Kate Brown for her approval.

If for any reason lawmakers could not agree, the mapping would then go to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, who would have until Aug. 15 to submit maps.

“We are going to blow by all the deadlines at this point,” Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, chair of the House Redistricting Committee, said late last month.

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