After writing about some theoretical, volatile political topics, I wanted to write something dealing with actual politics: the nuts and bolts of the American political system, which, to be honest, will probably be somewhat boring to those who don't follow politics closely. This is to describe the congressional districts of the state of Oregon. For our many foreign readers, and for the many Americans who aren't paying attention, each one of the United States gets two Senators for the effort of existing, and gets a number of representatives based on its population. Oregon, being a relatively small state, gets five members in the House of Representatives.
Many political entities in the United States and elsewhere are rather arbitrary and don't refer to people's actual perceived communities. While many Americans identify with the state they live in, sometimes fiercely, other areas, such as counties, are more administrative units that don't reflect community identity. This is especially true of congressional districts, whose only function is to send a representative to Washington, D.C, and which are also prone to shift from one census to another. Because of the fact that each congressional district in a state must have the exact same population, some communities are divided in two to make a district, while others are clumped together with communities they have no similarities with to fill out the population figure. In some ways, this process is unavoidable, but it can also be used to gerrymander districts, when one or both political parties tries to divide up the map so that they will hold an advantage out of proportion to their actual preference by voters. After discussing the different districts I will discuss whether Oregon's districts are divided fairly. (Or rather, I will discuss HOW unfairly they are divided.)
- Oregon's First Congressional District:
Location: the Northwest corner of the state, stretching from Portland, through its Western suburbs, and to the Northwest corner of the coast.
Geography & Demographics: Ranging from Downtown Portland to small rural towns, but predominantly suburban. Like much of Oregon, white with Hispanics being the largest majority.
Politics: Predominantly suburban, affluent, educated and moderately liberal. (As a running caveat, any description of American demographics or politics is obviously a generalization).
Currently Represented by: David Wu,Democrat, Representative since 1999, who is affluent, well educated, and moderately liberal. Despite the fact that the district includes many rural and conservative pockets, Wu seems to fit the district well enough that his elections are not contested.
- Oregon's Second Congressional District:
Location: All of Central and Eastern Oregon. This district is the nation's third largest non-at large district. It is larger than, for example, Greece or Pennsylvania. Despite its great size, its population is concentrated into a few large cities, and the district also hooks into Southern Oregon to pick up the city of Grants Pass.
Geography & Demographics: Very rural, including some areas that are extremely sparsely populated sagebrush country. Most of the population lives in a few (relatively) more densely populated agricultural areas, or in the fast-growing resort community of Bend. The demographics are very white, and very rural.
Politics: Very conservative, as are most rural areas in the Western States. Since this district took on its modern character, it has been represented by a Republican.
Currently represented by: Greg Walden, Republican, who is actually a bit more moderate then many of his constituents. Walden also lives in Hood River, which is a liberal city close to the Portland area, and also means that the distance between his home city and areas of his district is similar to the distance between, say, Boston, Massachusetts and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
- Oregon's Third Congressional District:
Location: Part of Multnomah County and Clackamas County. In other words, Portland and (part of) its suburbs.
Geography and Demographics: Urban, with some suburban and a bit of rural. Oregon's most ethnically diverse district.
Politics: The stereotypes about Portland's politics are mostly true. Portland itself tends to be very liberal, and the Clackamas County area of the district tends to be a bit more moderately liberal.
Currently Represented by: Earl Blumenhauer, Democrat, who fits the district well. The only problem with Blumenhauer is that he is more a fit with Portland itself than the slightly more conservative suburbs. But since Portland has lots of votes, he is fairly safe.
- Oregon's Fourth Congressional District:
Location: The Southwest corner of the state including the coast, and the south part of the Willamette Valley. The Eugene area is the major population center in this area.
Geography and demographics: Varies from the populated areas of the Willamette Valley, to many smaller towns in rural areas in the mountains and the coasts. The demographics are also white, with the exception of the Eugene area.
Politics: Very mixed. Eugene is known for being a very liberal area, but many of the rural parts of this district are very conservative.
Currently Represented by: Peter DeFazio, Democrat, who seems to be very popular in this district. Despite its split nature, the Republicans haven't been able to seriously challenge DeFazio here in over a decade, and in the 2008 election, didn't even field a candidate against him. While DeFazio is in many ways is very liberal, he has a populist image that makes him more popular than he should be in a split district like this.
- Oregon's Fifth Congressional District:
Location: The Willamette Valley, parts of the coast, and some of Portland's outer suburbs.
Geography and demographics: This district is based around a few big towns, including Salem, Oregon, but includes many small towns and rural areas. It includes affluent suburbs like Lake Oswego, some medium sized cities, and many Hispanic areas.
Politics: Also very mixed, with conservative rural areas, moderate suburban areas, and a few liberal-leaning towns. This district tends to have thin margins, and switch hands often.
Currently Represented by: Kurt Schrader, Democrat, who came in by a narrow margin in the 2008 election.
So Oregon's congressional district is split 4-1 in favor of the Democratic Party. Oregon's electorate in recent Presidential elections is usually split about 50 to 55 in favor of the Democratic candidate. Is this, then, the result of gerrymandering? I would say that it is not heavily so. The explanation for this is that since elections are a winner-take all system, in a state with a homogeneous electorate, a party advantage of, say, 51% would translate into winning every seat. Of course, states aren't homogeneous. Oregon is especially heterogeneous, as many of the conservative voters are in the rural Eastern part of the state. What this does is make a safe margin for the Republicans there, and make a safe margin for the Democrats everywhere else. That being said, there could possibly be ways to make the district boundaries follow more in line with established communities.
This can be a tricky thing, though. It could be argued that Multnomah County should be a single congressional district. But if this were to happen, and the 1st district was to lose its share of Multnomah County, it would have to pick up that population elsewhere. This would mean extending the 1st district down along the Oregon coast, so the district would then consist of Portland's suburbs and a long stretch of rural coast: which would defeat the purpose of congressional districts having some type of respect for actual community boundaries.
The one district that does seem to be somewhat weirdly designed is the 5th district, which does have a few signs of gerrymandering to maintain a Democratic majority. For example, it includes the liberal college town of Corvallis, rather than the much more conservative town of Albany. On the other hand, if the Democrats really wanted to gerrymander the 5th district, they certainly didn't do too good of a job of it. Instead of including the affluent suburbs of West Linn and Lake Oswego in the district, they could have drawn the district to include different parts of the Portland area. The truth is, most of the Willamette Valley is liberal to moderate, and there just isn't a way to draw a district that is very competitive for conservatives.
All of this discussion is also quick to become obsolete, since the 2010 census is soon to be undertaken, and Oregon's internal population movements will mean that the districts will be redrawn. There is a small chance that Oregon will actually gain a seat after redistricting, with the 6th congressional district probably being carved out of Oregon's western suburbs. However, this does not look probable right now. There are many different population patterns in Oregon, so it is still up in the air how the redistricting would happen. For example, many rural areas of the 2nd Congressional District have been steadily losing population, but the resort town of Bend in the district also has grown at a large pace. So the overall effect of redistricting remains to be seen.
At this point, the reader has probably left to read something more humorous or titillating. But it is just such small political decisions about whether Ashland, Oregon will be moved from the 2nd to the 4th congressional district of Oregon that eventually shape American politics, and can therefore have literally earth shaking results.