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Politics & Government

Judicial panel upholds Oregon Democrats’ new US congressional districts

The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.
The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

The five-judge panel found there was no proof that Democrats had engaged in illegal gerrymandering.

A judicial panel has dismissed a challenge to congressional maps pushed through by Oregon Democrats in September, finding no evidence the plan is the result of illegal gerrymandering.

In a unanimous opinion Wednesday, the five-judge panel dismissed an attempt from Republicans to paint the map as a partisan hack job. Agreeing with attorneys for the state and a national Democratic group, judges instead ruled the plan was in line with historic congressional plans, and showed no evidence of overt political gamesmanship.

The panel was composed of Oregon judges, each from one of the state’s current five congressional districts. They were asked to rule on maps that redraw district lines and add a sixth district to reflect population growth tallied in the 2020 Census.

“Ultimately, the extensive record in this case establishes that, far from being motivated by partisan purpose, the Legislative Assembly drew the enacted map based on public input and neutral criteria — resulting in a fair map that was not drawn for a partisan purpose,” the panel wrote in its opinion.

The ruling is a stinging setback for Republicans who have said they will be disadvantaged by the congressional map. Under the plan, passed without a single GOP vote on Sept. 27, four of the state’s six congressional districts are expected to either heavily favor or lean toward Democrats. One district is safe for Republicans, and a sixth is theoretically a tossup.

But the ruling is not necessarily the final word. Former Republican Secretary of State Bev Clarno and three other challengers have the option of appealing the matter to the Oregon Supreme Court. The state’s high court ruled against similar challenges to Oregon’s new state legislative districts earlier this week, finding they passed legal muster.

Clarno and her fellow petitioners — represented by out-of-state attorneys affiliated with Republican interests — centered their contention of Democratic gerrymandering on several things.

They said the fact that Portland is split among four districts under the plan was evidence Democrats sought to export the city’s liberal firepower into rural areas. And they pointed to the rejiggered 5th congressional district, which now spans the Cascades to connect Portland and Bend. Such an arrangement flies in the face of a statutory requirement that lawmakers not break up communities of common interest, the challengers argued.

The lawsuit also pointed to publicly available tools that seek to rate the fairness of congressional plans, many of which have concluded that Oregon’s districts favor Democrats. For instance, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which is affiliated with a group that advocates for nonpartisan redistricting commissions, gave the plan an “F” grade.

But at every turn, judges found the challengers’ arguments wanting. They noted Portland had long been split between three congressional districts, and did not agree the inclusion of a fourth presented a problem.

“Petitioners do not explain how the small and diminutive shares of Portland voters within other districts constitutes gerrymandering or would make a difference in elections,” the opinion said. “Far from reflecting a partisan purpose, the enacted map’s treatment of the Portland area — and the state as a whole — is consistent with prior maps adopted with both judicial imprimatur and bipartisan support.”

The judges also refused to take into account tools such as the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. And they did not agree with the metric Republicans attempted to use when putting forward their own calculation of the map’s partisan tilt.

That metric, known as the “efficiency gap,” attempts to quantify which party has the most wasted votes under a plan — either by voting for a candidate who did not win, or by voting for a winning candidate by more than the margin needed for victory.

But the lone expert cited by Republicans, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, was deemed by judges to have used unreliable methods. And he was countered by three additional experts hired to defend the maps, each of who testified to their fairness.

Judges appeared particularly swayed by an argument from Reed College professor Paul Gronke, who said that any bias in the plan might owe to the state’s political landscape, rather than overt Democratic tinkering.

“His conclusions strongly suggest that any measurable bias is not the result of partisan machinations, since this same bias can be measured in maps enacted by the judiciary and bipartisan majorities of the Legislative Assembly — which are unlikely to enact congressional plans for political advantage,” the judges’ opinion said.

In the end, the judges wrote, they would only invalidate the congressional plan if they found lawmakers had failed to consider criteria laid out in state statute ― things like ensuring equal populations among districts, keeping communities of interest whole, and making sure districts are connected by geographic and political boundaries — or that, “having considered them all, made a choice or choices that no reasonable legislature would have made.”

The five-judge panel found that neither of those things were true.

“We respect the legislative process in Oregon and decline to adopt the cynical view that all politics are dirty politics,” the opinion said. “That is simply not the Oregon experience or legacy.”

The court did not allow inquiries that might have delved further into how the maps were crafted. When challengers attempted to subpoena leading Democrats about the congressional plan, the court ruled lawmakers cannot face such questioning under the Oregon Constitution. When state Rep. Daniel Bonam, R-The Dalles, offered testimony he said pointed to Democrats’ political maneuvering, the court ruled it also was out of bounds.

The congressional districts upheld Wednesday were a lightning rod for controversy.

Majority Democrats initially introduced a congressional plan that was considered more biased in their party’s favor, and refused to budge or alter boundaries. When Republicans vowed to block the plan, House Speaker Tina Kotek reneged on a deal granting them parity in redistricting.

Democrats ultimately softened their proposal, but the plan that passed is still seen by many in the GOP as a blatant gerrymander. Many within the party expect Democrats to control five of the state’s six congressional districts after next year’s elections, a ratio they say is wildly out of step with the state’s electorate.

“This gerrymandered congressional redistricting map is an incumbent protection plan that Democrats desperately fought to keep,” House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said in a statement following Wednesday’s ruling. “Rather than serve the interests of Oregonians, they have served themselves. This is why we need an independent redistricting commission to take this job away from politicians.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.