Image for After Delays and Lawsuits, Census Data for Redistricting Due in Mid-August

Oregon lawmakers will convene September 20 to consider new congressional and legislative districts, but that timetable could be affected following a federal appeals court ruling this week against earlier release of US Census data, which is scheduled to go to states in mid-August.

Alabama officials sued in federal court to force an earlier release of the data that is used to draw new district lines. The US Census Bureau originally projected data maps would be released in September, but agreed under legal action to advance the release date to mid-August. The data is typically provided to states by July 1, but collecting data was hampered in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump administration policies on who should be counted. Alabama may appeal the ruling to the US Supreme Court.

The issue that could prove more complicated and consequential than timing is the protection of Census participant data. The Census Bureau is implementing a new algorithm called ‘differential privacy’ to ensure greater privacy protection while preserving data transparency. The Bureau pledges to share the algorithm, which was completed in June this year, at a later date to allow researchers to examine its effects.

Along with the data release date, the Alabama lawsuit challenged the new protocol, claiming it could affect redistricting efforts. The appeals court rejected the argument, noting: “It may very well be that the Individual Plaintiffs will return here once the final redistricting data are actually delivered to the states. But we cannot know whether differential privacy will inflict the harm alleged by the Individual Plaintiffs until the Bureau releases a final set of redistricting data.”

In addition to ruling on the release data, the appeals court also decided it was premature to challenge the Census Bureau’s new algorithm intended to protect the privacy of census participants.

Redistricting occurs every 10 years after a new census and typically turns into a political brawl. Oregon will take on the task with a six-person Legislative Redistricting Committee with equal representation of Democrats and Republicans. The GOP earned a third seat on the committee in a political arrangement in exchange for allowing House votes on bills without reading their full text. If the legislature fails to approve a legislative redistricting plan, the task falls to Democratic Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.

Oregon redistricting will be more challenging because the state was apportioned a sixth congressional seat based on population growth, much of it in the Willamette Valley. Four of the existing five Oregon congressional districts are held by Democrats. The sprawling 2nd District that covers Eastern, Central and parts of Southern Oregon is solidly Republican.

Four of the five current Oregon congressional representatives are former Oregon legislators – Suzanne Bonamici (1st District), Cliff Bentz (2nd District), Earl Blumenauer (3rd District) and Kurt Schrader (5th District). Bentz was elected to his congressional seat in 2020 after winning a crowded GOP primary. The 5th District that stretches from Clackamas County to Salem and includes most of the central Oregon Coast, had been viewed as a swing district before Schrader who is now serving his seventh term. Congressman Peter DeFazio has represented the 4th District, which extends from Corvallis through Eugene to Roseburg, since his election in 1986.

Failure by the legislature to draw new congressional district lines would result in the chore passing to Oregon courts. Oregon lawmakers successfully redrew legislative and congressional district lines following the 2010 Census. In 2001, after Governor John Kitzhaber vetoed legislative redistricting plans. Legislative redistricting fell to Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, whose plan was upheld when challenged in court. An Oregon trial court devised congressional boundaries, which included what was then a new 5th District.

Legislators will conduct hearings around the state. Here is the tentative schedule:

Sept. 8 – Bend, 5:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 – Eugene, at 5:30 p.m.
Sept. 10 – Salem, 9 a.m.
Sept. 10 – Oregon City/North Clackamas County, 3 p.m.
Sept. 11 – Central Portland, 9 a.m.
Sept. 11 – Hillsboro/Beaverton, 3 p.m.
Sept. 13 – Oregon Capitol, 9 a.m. and 1 and 5:30 p.m.