What’s What in Our Government: Let’s Get Smarter about … Redistricting

by Dannelle D. Stevens

What is redistricting? Redistricting is the drawing of the boundaries of voting districts. A voting district is a geographical area that the government uses to create groups who vote for a representative in a legislative body like the Oregon State Senate, House, or US House of Representatives.  Only voters within that district can cast ballots for candidates who represent them in that district. KGW has a very short background video on redistricting in Oregon.

“Redistricting is immensely important to collective political power. It impacts who our communities have the power to elect, and thus their ability to shape local, state, and federal policies that affect their lives.  The redistricting process presents a vital opportunity to advocate for voting districts boundaries that are truly representative of our communities” (Summer 2021, NorCalACLU News).

All voting districts must be created in line with constitutional law that districts must be approximately equal in population.  For example, in the Oregon state legislature we have 30 Senators with staggered elections every four years and 60 Representatives elected every two years. Thus, we have 30 Senatorial districts and 60 Representative districts. In the US Congress, we have a House of Representatives with 435 elected representatives from the same number of voting districts. (The two US Senators per state are not included in this because they represent their states, not the population.) It stands to reason that the districts should be equal in size, otherwise there might be one representative for 20,000 people and another for 2,000,000 people in different districts.  That would not be fair for the 2 million, to be sure.   

Another key principle of these voting districts is that within each level the districts should not only be the same size but represent the district constituents (voters). The Ballotpedia link  expands on the idea of additional criteria for determining the voting district lines and describes the additional criteria for redistricting in Oregon. 

Why do we need redistricting? When many new people move into a voting district and make the formerly equal population districts now unequal, “redistricting” is needed.  At the federal and at the state level, redistricting occurs every 10 years and follows the population figures from the US Census. This year the Census Bureau will issue its guidelines for the size of each district for US Congressional representation on August 16. 

Because Oregon has had a substantial increase in population since the last census in 2010, the US Census Bureau has determined that Oregon will get one more representative in the US House of Representatives. We currently have five and will now have six.  The last time this happened was 40 years ago.  In addition, based on the 2020 census, Like Oregon these states also gain seats, +1 seat each: Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina: +2, Texas. These states lose seats, -1: California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia.The Cook Political Report has a great webpage of the redistricting process across all the states, here

Who makes decisions on redistricting in a state? Redistricting is done at the state level by an independent commission, the state legislature, or a hybrid of the two. Oregon’s redistricting starts with a committee from the Senate and the House legislature. Based on the Oregon Constitution there is a deadline for completion of the districts after the state receives the census data on August 16.  These deadlines vary from state to state because they are sensitive to whenever the state starts having its primaries and elections. This year in Oregon redistricting is in the hands of the legislature and a balanced committee of Democrats and Republicans. If the committee cannot agree, the responsibility for redistricting for the state legislature is handed over to the Oregon Secretary of State on September 27. There does not seem to be a similar backup plan for the US Congressional maps. District lines are subject to veto by the Governor, however. If you look at the Oregon State Legislature redistricting website you will also see a calendar for hearings in the middle of September about the districts proposed by the legislature. Also, look at Ballotpedia link for the specifics of redistricting in Oregon. It is a very thorough resource.

What are the issues and challenges with redistricting? The biggest problem with redistricting is gerrymandering, the practice of drawing districts to favor one political party or racial group, skews election results, makes races less competitive, hurts communities of color, and thwarts the will of the voters. It leads many Americans to feel their voices don’t matter.

More resources:

Ballotpedia: Encyclopedia of American Politics.  The section entitled “State-based Requirements” partway down addresses, along with population, other metrics to use to decide how to create these districts.  https://ballotpedia.org/Redistricting

Dannelle D. Stevens is Precinct Committee Person (PCP) and Neighborhood Leader in District 41 (Inner SE Portland). Her interest in civic awareness started as a high school social studies teacher and led her to being a (now retired) teacher educator from Portland State University.

Congressional district map photo credit: US Dept. of the Interior