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Without congressional action, states start drawing new maps

Pressure increases on Senate Democrats to pass a bill that would overhaul the redistricting process

Demonstrators hold signs outside of Union Station in Washington in August to protest voter suppression laws.
Demonstrators hold signs outside of Union Station in Washington in August to protest voter suppression laws. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Oregon’s state House meets this weekend to potentially finalize boundaries on a new congressional map, putting pressure on Senate Democrats clinging to high hopes of passing federal election and redistricting legislation.

The Beaver State’s new map could be the first of the redistricting cycle so far, and may be quickly followed by a deluge of maps in other states. Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Nebraska and New York are currently working their way through draft congressional maps. 

According to David Canon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “the clock is already running,” leaving little time for the Senate to pass any kind of election overhaul legislation that would address the redistricting process.

“We’ve already had some states draw their maps, we’ve got filing deadlines coming up in a few months. Unless they could do this in the next few weeks, it is going to be too late. You can’t fundamentally change processes that have already been underway for some time in the middle of the game,” Canon said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., earlier this week said he plans to hold a vote on the latest attempt at reforming election law “soon.” But the bill still faces united Republican opposition in the evenly split chamber.

“We’re going to take action to make sure we protect our democracy and fight against the disease of voter suppression, partisan gerrymandering and election subversion that is metastasizing at the state level,” Schumer said in a floor speech Tuesday.

However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dismissed the measure as the same “Frankenstein’s monster” that Republicans opposed during a cloture vote this summer that fell short of the 60-vote threshold needed to advance.

The new legislation, introduced earlier this month by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., includes same day voter registration, early voting, standardizes election supervision and mandates that states adopt nonpartisan mapmaking, among other measures. Many of those provisions carried over from the first legislative attempt.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told progressive activists on a call this week he expects the body’s first vote on the new measure to again fall short of the 60-vote filibuster threshold.

“And then we’re going to have to say, okay, so the 50 of us have to get together and say, how are we going to honor our oath of Constitution? How are we going to get this passed? Are we going to do a carve out for voting rights? There’s been a lot of carve outs in the filibuster,” Merkley said.

A vote would effectively turn up pressure on Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., the two most prominent critics of their party’s efforts to change Senate debate rules. Merkley said he hopes to carve out exemptions to the filibuster or revert the chamber to the “talking filibuster” of years past.

A tight timeline

But Senate Democrats don’t have much time to pass legislation that could address their redistricting concerns. In addition to already-revealed maps, lawmakers in Washington state will also unveil draft congressional maps next week, and Texas is currently in a special legislative session that includes redistricting.

In Oregon, the meeting Saturday in the state House comes days before the state’s mapmaking deadline and follows weeks of partisan maneuvering and pandemic-related interruptions.

Originally, the state legislature agreed to share political power when redrawing its political boundaries, but earlier this month, the Democratic House speaker restructured the redistricting committee to allow Democrats to control the process. The draft plan, which has five Democrat-leaning seats and a single Republican one, passed the state Senate last week.

The state faces a Sept. 27 deadline from its Supreme Court to finalize its maps. The legislature gaveled out of session earlier this week after an unspecified coronavirus exposure.

Republicans in the state and national groups like the National Republican Redistricting Trust have criticized Democrats’ moves in Oregon.

“[The map] follows Democrats’ standard gerrymandering playbook — take a major urban area, in this case Portland — and carve it up, just like they’ve done in Illinois and New York,” NRRT Executive Director Adam Kincaid said in a statement. “When the Democrats say they want a fair map, it means they want a map that elects as many Democrats as possible.”

Partisan maneuvering has also gummed up the process in other states. Nebraska’s unicameral legislature failed to advance its congressional map this week and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she intends to have the Democratic-controlled legislature draw maps, discarding plans from a state commission.

Canon said absent congressional action, changes to congressional maps will likely play out in the courts over the next few months.

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