Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

A Sixth Congressional District for Oregon?

It all depends on Oregon’s population growth relative to the other forty-nine states. If recent population trends continue, Oregon will get a sixth seat in Congress starting with the 2022 election, along with Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and possibly Montana, while Florida may get two more and Texas three or four more (which makes an ever stronger argument to give Texas back to Mexico or allow it to secede) (Map 1).


Map 1. A 2017 estimate of the congressional map after the 2020 census. Relatively speaking, the long trend continues of political power based on population leaving the Industrial Heartland for the South. Source: Election Data Services

No one will know for sure until the completion of the constitutionally mandated decennial census in 2020. Politically, a sixth member of Congress from Oregon could be better for Oregon’s environment. (Actually, the best thing for Oregon’s environment would be losing enough population to lose some congressional seats—but that won’t happen.) In any case, districts will be redrawn to adjust for population changes. How the districts are drawn and by whom will have implications for public lands and wildlife.

How Congressional Districts Impact Public Lands: One Example

Upon gaining statehood, Oregon had one member in the U.S. House of Representatives. As its population grew over the decades, the state gained more seats in Congress, and it gained a fifth seat after the 1980 census. Historically, the tradition has been to keep the eighteen Oregon counties east of the Cascade Crest in the same congressional district and to include just enough of the westside to balance the population requirements (Maps 2 through 6). Adherence to this tradition has generally resulted in Republicans controlling one of Oregon’s five congressional districts.


Map 2. Oregon’s four congressional districts after the 1970 census. The site of Elk Creek Dam was safely in Oregon’s 4th district, represented by a Democrat. Source: Wikipedia


Map 3. Oregon’s new five congressional districts after the 1980 censusThe inclusion of part of Jackson County in the 2nd district politically facilitated construction of the Elk Creek Dam.Source: Wikipedia


Map 4. Oregon’s congressional districts after the 1990 census. Relatively minor tweaking was done as the number of districts remained the same. Source: Wikipedia


Map 5. Oregon’s congressional districts after the 2000 census. More relatively minor tweaking was done to adjust for population changes. The Oregon 3rd expanded in size and only the urban part of Josephine County (a.k.a. greater Grants Pass) remained in the Oregon 2nd. Source: Wikipedia


Map 6. Oregon’s congressional districts after the 2010 census. The Oregon 2nd encompasses ~73 percent of Oregon’s geographic area and an even larger portion of its federal public lands. Source: Wikipedia

Oregon’s 2nd congressional district (like the other four) had 20 percent of the state’s population when drawn in 2011, though it encompasses approximately 73 percent of the land area of the state and an even greater percentage of Oregon’s federal public lands. The district has been represented by a series of anti-environment Republicans, presently Representative Greg Walden, who has a lifetime rating from the national League of Conservation Voters of 9 percent. Historically, the House of Representatives has given large deference to the wishes of individual members regarding the establishment of wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and the like on public lands within their own districts.

In the 1980s, the infamous Elk Creek Dam on a critical coho spawning tributary to the Rogue River was strong favored by Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR) but was equally disfavored by Representative Jim Weaver (D-4th-OR), in whose district the proposed dam was—stalemate. The 1980 census resulted in Oregon getting its fifth congressional seat (Maps 2 and 3), starting with the 1982 election, and the boundary between Weaver’s 4th district and Republican Representative Bob Smith’s 2nd district moved so that Elk Creek Dam was now in a congressional district held by a fish-hating dam lover. Two years earlier, Oregon had gone from a Democratic governor (Bob Straub) who opposed the dam to a Republican one (Vic Atiyeh) who supported it. Construction soon commenced.

(Today, because of the retirement of Hatfield, the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the governorship of Democrat Barbara Roberts, the opinion of the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (despite a US Supreme Court ruling that mostly—but not totally—overturned it), and the obstinance (a good kind) of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Elk Creek again flows free. Though the damn dam was half built, the fish-killing budget-busting behemoth was eventually “notched” by the Corps using heavy explosives (video), but that’s another Public Lands Blog post.)

How Might Districts Be Redrawn?

FiveThirtyEight published a fascinating (well, at least to me) online tool that shows the political implications of current district boundaries (Map 7) compared to redrawing Oregon’s present five congressional districts to meet a number of different criteria:

• gerrymandered to favor Republicans (Map 8)

• gerrymandered to favor Democrats (Map 9)

• matching the partisan breakdown of seats to the electorate (Map 10)

• promoting highly competitive districts (Map 10; coincidentally no difference from above)

• maximizing the number of majority-minority districts (Map 11)

• making districts compact using an algorithm (Map 12)

• making districts compact while following county borders (Map 13)


Map 7. Political implications of Oregon’s current congressional district boundariesThe map was drawn by Democrats last time. The 4th District (southwest Oregon), though long represented by Democrat Peter DeFazio, could be a toss-up in an election for an open seat. Source: FiveThirtyEight


Map 8. Political implications of gerrymandering Oregon’s congressional districts to favor Republicans. Because there are fewer Republicans than Democrats in Oregon, a partisan gerrymander for Republicans would likely result in Republicans holding three of the five seats. Source: FiveThirtyEight


Map 9. Political implications of gerrymandering Oregon’s congressional districts to favor Democrats. Because there are more Democrats than Republicans in Oregon, a partisan gerrymander for Democrats would likely result in Democrats holding four of the five seats, just like the current political reality. Source: FiveThirtyEight


Map 10. Political implications of matching Oregon’s congressional districts to the partisan breakdown or drawing them to promote highly competitive districts. This would put one more “usually Democratic” district into the “highly competitive” column. Source: FiveThirtyEight


Map 11. Political implications of drawing Oregon’s congressional districts to maximize the number of majority-minority districts pursuant to a judicial interpretation in the Voting Rights Act. This would result in no change to the current political reality. Source: FiveThirtyEight


Map 12.Political implications of drawing Oregon’s congressional districts with the sole goal of compactness to avoid gerrymandering by any side. I haven’t measured it, but the Oregon 2nd would encompass at least four-fifths of Oregon’s land areaThis would result in no change to the current political reality. Source: FiveThirtyEight


Map 13. Political implications of drawing Oregon’s congressional districts with the goal of compactness while not splitting counties between districts. Notice the relative similarity to the current congressional district boundaries. Source: FiveThirtyEight

Of the major mapping maneuvers that could be done, the one that would have the most extreme implications for which party holds Congressional seats is partisan gerrymandering (which has increasingly become the redrawing of districts everywhere. 

Some call for allocating a state’s congressional seats proportionally to the state’s two-party breakdown, but today Oregon is not actually politically bipolar and there are more registered non-affiliated (a.k.a. independent) voters than registered Republicans. Here’s how the affiliations of registered voters break down:

• 36.1 percent Democratic Party

• 30.5 percent not affiliated with any party

• 26.3 percent Republican Party

• 4.5 percent Independent Party

• 0.7 percent Libertarian Party

• 0.4 percent Working Families Party

• 0.4 percent Pacific Green Party

• 0.1 percent Constitution Party

• <0.1 percent Progressive Party

• 0.7 percent with other political parties

Some favor the goal of making as many seats as possible “competitive” so the chances of a Democrat or Republican winning are comparable. (I would note that most non-affiliated voters, while hostile to either of the dominant parties, nonetheless generally consistently vote for candidates of one party, despite their great disdain for the party itself.)

To avoid gerrymandering for partisan advantage, some favor geographic compactness (encompassing the requisite equal number of voters in the most compact area—that is, with the smallest boundary perimeter). A variant is to honor existing political boundaries of counties, cities, and such, which by design or as a result of where people have chosen or have been forced to live, may not be race neutral.

Two cases on redistricting are currently pending before the US Supreme Court and will be decided by the end of June 2018. It may be that the Supremes place some kind of limit on the amount of political gerrymandering that is considered constitutional. This could result in a radical change in congressional districts and how they are drawn—and could cause changes to Oregon’s congressional districts that cannot be imagined at this time.

Where Might a Sixth District Arise?

With the advent of big data, it would be possible to draw a congressional district that included odd-numbered apartments with even-numbered addresses on street names beginning with selected letters. One could also decide to use the Willamette Stone, a marker in the West Hills of Portland that is the basis of Oregon’s public land survey system, as a touchstone for each congressional district and have five or six districts radiate outward from the stone. Another touchstone could be the 2020 geographic population center of Oregon (likely somewhere in Marion County east of Salem), that point where if Oregonians all weighed the same standingly on a rigid but weightless map, the map would be perfectly balanced on a pin.

However, a new Oregon 6th and a redrawing of the current five will be decided by baser political considerations. Gary Conkling, who has been a journalist, inside political operative, lobbyist, and public relations specialist recently speculated on where an Oregon 6th could arise. He mentions a proposal made in a Register-Guardeditorial to center the new district on Clackamas County, which could favor Republicans. He also suggests that the Oregon coast could all be in one district, but that would have to include a large interior valley population, perhaps in the Corvallis area, to make the numbers balance.

Another option would be to draw a district centered on greater Salem to greater Bend (a.k.a. LaBendmondville), which demographically is the easternmost extension of the Willamette Valley. This would result in the geographic area of the Oregon 2nd growing to encompass even more than nearly three-quarters of the state.

Conkling astutely notes, “Redistricting involves lots of numbers and maps. It also involves personalities. Political partisans will be aware of who is itching to run for Congress and might be drawn in–or out–of a district accordingly. Those aspirants who often get the most consideration are ones who vie hard to have a seat at the redistricting table.” Redistricting can influence an incumbent to retire and vice versa.

During reapportionment after the 2010 census, the Democrats in the Oregon legislature toyed with transferring Hood River County out of the Oregon 2nd to the Oregon 3rd. (This county is effectively the easternmost extent of the Portland Metropolitan Area, which already includes Skamania County, Washington, to the north and will likely be officially joined to the great Portland sprawl after the next census.) Representative Greg Walden (R-2nd-OR) lives in Hood River County, and some Democrats wanted to force him to run against Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-3rd-OR) in a district still heavily Democratic. However, to represent a congressional district, one must only be a resident of the state, not of the actual district, and since Walden could keep his 97031 zip code and still get elected in an Oregon 2nd centered on the seventeen other eastside counties, the Democrats backed off.

When asked by someone whether it is worth their supporting (with time and/or money) a Democrat to challenge Walden, I always express the view that if Jesus Christ himself were running in the Oregon 2nd as a Democrat, he would lose. I’m not often asked, but I would also say that Christ would lose the Oregon 3rd (greater east Portland) if running as a Republican. (Of course, only 29 percent of Oregonians consider themselves “very religious,” but perhaps a threat of eternal damnation would swing the undecideds.)

Who Gets to Decide?

The fairest way to draw a congressional district is to have a nonpartisan commission do it. However, to be fair, this must be done by all states at the same time. Done in pieces, such unilateral political disarmament in a state that previously favored one political party would result in favoring the opposing political party on a national scale.

Presently, the Oregon legislature gets the first crack at redistricting not only their own seats but also the state’s congressional districts. When one political party controls the governorship and both houses of the legislature, the other party is screwed. If there is split control, the politics revolve around protecting all incumbents of either party. If the legislature fails to act and the governor to approve, the redistricting task falls to Oregon’s secretary of state.

Today the governorship and both houses of the legislature are controlled by Democrats, while the secretary of state is Oregon’s only Republican statewide elected official. Such may or may not still be the case in the 2021 general session of the Oregon Legislative Assembly.

While I’m a reluctant Democrat (I’m a fiscally conservative, socially liberal, gun-toting flexitarian (libertarian at times but not insane about it and liking some big government enough to drive a true-believing libertarian insane), the evidence is that the environment in general, and public lands in particular, do better when the Democrats hold the majorities in both houses of Congress. Therefore, I’m hoping that the Democrats maintain their majorities in the Oregon legislature, continue to hold the governor’s office, and get back the office of secretary of state. (However, a shout-out here to Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican, for doing the right thing for the Elliott State Forest.)

Elections matter.