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Independent panel would avoid redistricting impasse

Three members of Southern Oregon’s legislative delegation, two Democrats and a Republican, agree that an independent commission would be a better way to draw new congressional and legislative districts than the political process that has now bogged down.

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That’s more agreement than is happening in the Legislature, which will reconvene on Saturday to try to finish the redistricting process by the Monday deadline set by the state Supreme Court.

While the new legislative district map may win approval before Monday, the congressional map probably won’t, for reasons that are obvious to anyone except the Democratic leadership in Salem.

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, one of those who favors an independent commission, says he thinks the Democrats’ proposed congressional map is “defensible.”

Golden is right that it doesn’t approach some of the more egregious examples of gerrymandering found in other states. The term “gerrymander” was named after Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 signed a bill creating a partisan Boston-area district that resembled a salamander.

But egregious or not, the proposed map does not create districts likely to result in competitive elections.

In last November’s presidential election, 56% of Oregonians voted for the Democratic candidate. Gov. Kate Brown won 50% of the vote in 2018. But the map of congressional districts drawn by Democrats would give them the edge in five of the six districts.

The 2nd District would become even more heavily Republican than it is now, because it would take in all of Josephine County and some of Douglas County. Bend, which has been trending more blue in recent years, would be carved out of the 2nd District and lumped into the 3rd District, which would stretch north to Portland.

One of the criteria under state law for drawing districts is that they connect “communities of common interest.” Everyone who thinks Bend residents have the same interests as Portlanders, raise your hand. For that matter, how much common interest is there between Ontario and Cave Junction?

Granted, it’s tough to draw districts of equal population — another legal requirement — when huge swaths of Eastern Oregon contain more sagebrush than people. But it’s hard to understand how slicing the population center of Bend out of the 2nd District makes any kind of sense.

The Republicans are hardly blameless. A legislative district map proposed by House Republicans could have resulted in an unlikely 30-30 split in that chamber, according to one independent analysis.

To their credit, there is no talk of a Republican walkout over this disagreement. Not that it would benefit them anyway. It would just mean missing the deadline, which would hand the legislative redistricting to Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, and the congressional job to a panel of judges appointed by the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.

Asking partisan politicians to draw the boundaries of the districts they will represent is a recipe for conflict under the best of circumstances. The better path going forward would be to establish a bipartisan, independent commission to draw sensible boundaries that give both parties a fair shot at winning seats.