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.
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.
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.
“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.
Bradley Parks | OPB
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.
Related: Oregon Supreme Court upholds new state House and Senate maps
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.
Related: Oregon lawmakers pass plans for new political maps, after Republicans end boycott “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.”
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.
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. 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.