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Redistricting in Oregon


It’s coming around again, almost on schedule. But this time – and with impact for a decade to come – Oregon’s redistricting of its congressional seats has particular interest for new reasons.

The redistricting of the U.S. House of Representatives, done to ensure that all the districts have somewhere near the same population, is dictated by the U.S. constitution and has been undertaken for generations by the Oregon Legislature. Legislators have redrawn the lines between the districts since the state in 1892 first was awarded more than one district. But the changes from decade to decade usually have not been dramatic. Partly that’s because long stretches have passed between adding new districts: the third district was launched in 1913, the fourth in 1943, and the fifth in 1983. (As a matter of timing, we’re apparently about due.)

For several generations, even before the fifth and fourth districts, a mapping pattern set in. One of the districts would consist of Portland and its immediate area, and another would include all or nearly all of the state east of the Cascades. Most of the population growth that resulted in new districts happened west of the Cascades but mostly outside of Portland, and the split of that area has made a once smooth line increasingly complex.

Oregon’s remap after the 1970 census gave one district to Multnomah County, one to the northwest corner of the state (including Yamhill), one to the larger southwest area, and one to the east side (with some of Clackamas and Linn counties thrown in). The fifth district added a decade later shifted that Clackamas and Linn territory, along with pieces of the northwestern District 1 and the southwestern District 4, into the new District 5, while Multnomah kept mostly to itself in District 3. Some of the area around Medford was united with the eastern-based District 2 to even out the population.

In the four decades since, those contours have changed remarkably little. District 1 in the northwest, which includes Yamhill County, has shrunk in square mileage as the population of Washington County exploded, but it has remained northwest-corner based. District 5 has shrunk a little too with growth in Clackamas, giving up territory in the Corvallis area to the southwestern District 4. But the basic layout of the districts has not not changed greatly since Oregon was allowed five of them 40 years ago. You’d have to squint to see the difference, in fact, between the two different maps before and after the 2010 census.

This new 2020 census almost certainly will shake things up, however, because Oregon overall appears to have added enough population to justify a sixth congressional district, the only northwestern state to add any.

It will be the object of intense database research by both major parties. One reason is that the U.S. House now is closely divided – Democrats have only a small majority – and every seat is critically important. The other is that the new Oregon seat plausibly could go to either party, and a Democratic miscalculation could even result in flipping one of the current five. The question may come down to whether Oregon’s House delegation in the next decade will be five blue and one red, or four blue and two red.

Of the current House seats, four have been held throughout the last decade by Democrats and the other (District 2) by Republicans.

But the levels of party strength are not the same in all five. The most solidly locked-in district in the last generation has been District 3, which has included most of Portland, and which is overwhelmingly Democratic; there’s been no serious general election contest there in decades. The next most solid is District 2, which is located mostly east of the Cascades with some of the area around Medford; Republicans there have had no close general election races in a long time. District 1 in the northwest (which includes Yamhill County) was somewhat competitive two decades ago but, in the years since, has become heavily blue. The two remaining districts (4 and 5), while represented consistently by Democrats for a couple of decades, are much closer in their partisan balances. In 2016, District 4 – which has been represented by Democrat Peter DeFazio since 1987 – was the closest congressional district in the nation in the presidential contest between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton; the Democrat won there by 554 votes. It was only a little less close in 2020. But DeFazio’s own races have not been especially close.

In other words, small changes in the contours of Districts 4 or 5 could mean either of those districts plausibly could flip if either incumbent Democrat were to leave.

The carving-out of a new District 6 complicates all this. Oregon after all is decisively but not overwhelmingly a blue state. In the 2020 presidential contest, Oregon voted for Democrat Joe Biden with 56.4% of the vote, and in none of the presidential contests since Democrats started their current streak in 1988 have any of the winners received as much as 57% of the vote. If Oregon has six congressional districts, how many might Republicans, all other things equal, expect to win? Probably two – which would mean a net one-seat gain for Republicans in the U.S. House.

Again, though, things aren’t so clear-cut. Much of the population growth has been in the Portland metro area, and it could be divided in a number of ways. Maps could be drawn, for example, which give Democrats far smaller advantages in one or two districts but spread their numbers out more broadly. That new district could realistically go Democratic or Republican depending on how careful the voting analysts are, and how determined the parties.

The remapping process in some states is run by bipartisan commissions – that’s the case in Washington and Idaho – but in Oregon legislators still are assigned the job. When redistricting was done in 2011, control of the legislature was split, as Democrats controlled the Senate and the governorship (where a redistricting bill could be vetoed) but the two parties shared control of the House. The result was a measure of compromise and little change in district boundaries.

This year, in a process that will probably be running late since final Census returns are running late, Democrats control the governor’s office and the legislature, which could mean a strongly Democratic map is pushed through. That might give Oregon??, which is only mostly Democratic, five of the six House districts. You can find similar results in a number of other states around the country, though mostly in cases benefitting Republicans (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina being prime examples).

Republicans might decide not to simply throw in the towel. They haven’t got the numbers in the strongly Democratic legislature to pass their own preferred remapping plan but they may, for a time, be able to slow things down with a tactic they’ve used in recent years on other issues: Stage a walkout, to deny one or both chambers a quorum. That would block a vote, for a time at least.

That would come with two problems. First, it probably wouldn’t solve the problem forever: They can’t simply go into hiding for months (or years?) on end. But there’s also a bigger problem. If the legislature fails to draw its own redistricting map, the job then goes to the courts, where Republicans wouldn’t necessarily have an advantage, and which likely would throw out a legislative plan only if a significant legal problem were identified.

Republicans might also consider another piece of Democratic leverage: If the legislature fails to adopt redistricting maps for itself (the other part of its assigned reapportionment work), the job goes to the secretary state: Democrat, Shemia Fagan, who would have wide latitude in crafting the map. Democrats in the legislature could have the option of threatening to throw legislative districting to her if Republicans aren’t cooperative on the congressional maps.

But then, legislative redistricting is a whole other, and also complicated, story.

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