State Map of Oregon

The Oregon Legislature could be cut out of drawing new legislative and congressional districts because of late Census Bureau data, lawmakers are expected to hear Wednesday.

Kathleen M. Styles, Chief, Decennial Communications and Stakeholder Relationships of the U.S. Bureau of the Census is set to testify Wednesday afternoon before the Senate Redistricting Committee.

According to meeting materials submitted in advance by Styles, the bureau is months behind its timeline to provide the legally required data to draw maps that reflect population shifts since 2010.

The new districts would be used in the 2022 election. Oregon is also expected to gain a sixth congressional seat. In preparation for the reapportionment, the Legislature created the House and Senate redistricting committees.

The numbers for redistricting were supposed to be delivered by the Census Bureau to the Legislature no later than April 1. The Legislature would then have until July 1 to draw the new district maps.

If the lawmakers could not come to agreement by then, or if the governor vetoed the plan, the state legislative maps would be drawn by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. The congressional maps would be drawn by a special panel of five retired federal judges — one drawn from each of the current five congressional districts — that would be created by the Marion Circuit Court.

But the Census Bureau presentation says not only will it miss the April 1 deadline, it likely won't be able to provide the data until late July — after the Legislature adjourns.

That has created a constitutional quandry. If the deadlines in the Oregon Constitution are to be met, the map-making would have to go directly to Fagan and the federal judges panel.

"As set forth in Article IV, Section 6 of the Oregon Constitution, the Oregon Legislature has until July 1 to complete legislative redistricting," Fagan spokesman Aaron Fiedler said Tuesday. "If it does not complete/or is unable to complete redistricting by that time, the Secretary of State has until August 15 (also in Article IV, Section 6) to do the work. If by that point, the Secretary is unable to complete the work, it goes to the Oregon Supreme Court." 

Lawmakers are upset with the idea that they might not have a say in drawing the maps.

"The material we will build the district on, that we are required to use, will not get to us by the required deadline," said Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, a member of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

The Census Bureau presentation materials for Wednesday's hearing say the detailed population count was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other disasters around the country, such as Oregon's wildfires, also put the count on hold. The bureau had to deal with directives from the Trump Administration which required more data to be gathered. 

While data is delayed to all states, each has its own way of drawing districts, with deadlines in state statute or constitution.

Many states, such as California and Washington, have created independent bi-partisan or non-partisan commissions to draw the maps.

The commissions are a relatively new trend. The traditional way has been for legislatures to draw the lines. Oregon has retained that model and has deadlines set out in the constitution.

Oregon is one of the few states in the nation in which both chambers of the Legislature and the governor's office are controlled by Democrats. Several states have such "trifectas" with Republicans in control.

Hansell said lawmakers have discussed a possible special session for redistricting or delaying the legislative maps until 2023, while the congressional redistricting would move ahead this year with the federal judges.

"It is all somewhat speculative right now," Hansell said. "It depends on how you interpret the Constitution."

Hansell said the constitutional deadlines were obviously not written to address the possibility that the Census Bureau would fail to deliver.

"It may come down to the courts to decide," Hansell said. "The Legislature would not be able to do their job through no fault of their own. It's not happening because the Legislature can't agree on a plan. It's because the census numbers won't get here in time."

Oregon has 60 House districts and 30 Senate districts. Each Senate district has two House districts "nested" inside its boundaries. That makes drawing the maps all the more difficult.

Since the last redistricting in 2010, there has been major growth in the Bend area and some Portland suburbs. And indication of how out of balance district have become was shown in the November election.

More than 96,000 votes were cast in the race for Senate District 27 in which incumbent Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, defeated Democrat Eileen Kiely. No other Senate race had even 80,000 total votes cast.

With each redistricting, congressional seats are added to or subtracted from states, depending on population changes. Current estimates show that Oregon will gain a sixth seat, while neighboring California is expected to lose a seat. 

Hansell said the impact of the missed deadlines will be discussed at Wednesday's hearing featuring the presentation from the Census Bureau.

The Senate Redistricting Committee has already consulted with legal experts familiar with the census from Willamette University and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

"We'll get a better feel for what is coming on Wednesday," Hansell said.

EO Media Group reporter Jade McDowell contributed to this report. 

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