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Court panel should toss congressional map

Former Secretary of State Bev Clarno and three other Republicans have filed a lawsuit challenging the new congressional district map adopted last month, arguing that it amounts to illegal gerrymandering and should be scrapped. Under Oregon law, a panel of retired judges will consider the challenge; they should scrap the adopted map and draw their own.

The decision carries far-reaching implications for Oregon because the state is gaining a sixth congressional district thanks to population growth. At the moment, Democrats hold four of the five U.S. House seats. Republicans are in the minority statewide, but account for more than one fifth of Oregon voters. Accordingly, they would prefer to see district boundaries that gave their party a fighting chance of winning more than a single seat.

Democrats, who control both houses in the Legislature, pushed through their map over Republican objections. They argue their map is legal, fair and representative and will withstand the court challenge.

We have our doubts.

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Four of the six districts extend into the heavily Democratic Portland area. All lean Democratic, some extremely so. The most competitive district on the Democrats’ adopted map is the 5th, now held by moderate Democrat Kurt Schrader. It would be nearly equally weighted, according to independent analysis. But to get there, the Democrats carved the blue-trending Bend area out of the 2nd District, where it is now. Take a look at the shape of the 5th District on the map, and see if it makes any kind of sense. It stretches from Bend all the way to Lake Oswego and Milwaukie.

One of the criteria for redistricting in Oregon law says districts should not “divide communities of common interest.” Does Bend have more in common with other parts of Eastern Washington, or with suburban Portland?

Besides losing Bend, the 2nd District gets some other changes as well: Hood River, home of former Rep. Greg Walden, is now part of the overwhelmingly Democratic 3rd District. And in our area, the district boundary moves west to take in all of Josephine County and part of Douglas County.

The result of that reshaping makes the new 2nd District even more Republican than it is now. And the 4th District, now represented by Democrat Peter DeFazio, gets less Republican, making DeFazio’s re-election easier.

What the Democrats in Salem did, essentially, was to make the only safe Republican seat even safer by peeling off Democratic areas to shore up the other districts. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, but it too often does.

The Republicans challenging the new map argue, among other things, that the new 6th District, which includes Salem along with Polk and Yamhill counties, was drawn specifically to allow State Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, to win a seat in Congress. News reports say Salinas, who led the redistricting efforts in the Oregon House, has told colleagues she plans to run.

Even if the Republicans’ accusation isn’t true, it doesn’t look good. And it’s one more reason to take the inherently political redistricting process out of the hands of politicians.

The panel of retired judges that will take up the challenge should strike a blow for fairness and draw a new map that reflects the state as it is, not as one party envisions it.