Oregon Republicans sue to block Democrats' redistricting plan

Four Oregon Republicans on Monday filed suit in state court to block a redistricting plan that would lock in a Democratic advantage for the next decade, alleging the new map violates state law.

The lawsuit, filed by a former secretary of state, two former legislators and a onetime mayor of a small town on the Columbia River, says the new maps run afoul of a state law that bars partisan considerations from the redistricting process and run counter to state constitutional provisions meant to protect voters.

The Democratic-controlled legislature muscled through the new maps last month, after House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) created a special committee specifically to draw congressional district lines. Gov. Kate BrownKate BrownBBB threatens the role of parents in raising — and educating — children Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Obama pushes world to do more at COP26 Hawaii governor urges bolder climate action: Net zero is 'not good enough' MORE (D) signed the measure hours after it passed the legislature.

ADVERTISEMENT

The congressional map divides the city of Portland between three districts that stretch like tentacles west, east and south, giving those districts major infusions of Democratic voters. Two of those Portland-based districts cross the Cascade Mountains, in one case connecting voters in Portland with those in Bend, a growing liberal enclave in the heart of the ruby-red high desert.

The new maps are likely to give Democrats control of five of Oregon’s six congressional districts. 

“The result of this highly partisan process is a clear, egregious partisan gerrymander, as has been widely acknowledged both in Oregon and across the country,” the lawsuit says. If the maps are allowed to survive, “Oregon’s Constitutional and statutory prohibitions against partisan gerrymandering are effectively meaningless.”

To achieve the partisan split that gives Democrats an advantage, the new maps split 13 counties between multiple congressional districts, three times more than the map passed a decade ago. It divides more than twice as many Census tracts between multiple districts.

The Republican litigants also point out that the map could be a specific advantage for Rep. Andrea Salinas (D), a member of the committee that drew the congressional maps. Salinas has told fellow lawmakers she will run for the newly created 6th District, which Oregon won after growing substantially in the last decade and which is based in the Willamette Valley.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Gerrymandering is cheating. Oregon Democrats want a map that protects incumbents and silences the voices of Oregonians,” state House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R) said in a statement. “This challenge is an opportunity for the courts to fix the political gerrymandering and create maps that truly represent Oregon.”

Democrats have defended the map they drew, accusing Republican lawmakers of operating in bad faith by introducing their own heavily gerrymandered maps before the legislature passed the Democratic-favored plan.

“Redistricting is always a complex task, and this time we faced more challenges than ever before,” Kotek said in a statement after the maps were passed, citing the pandemic and delays in Census Bureau data that forced lawmakers to work on a shortened time frame. “Against some incredible odds, we got the job done for the people of Oregon.”

Kotek did not immediately issue a comment on the Republican lawsuit.

The Oregon Republicans filed suit in Marion County Circuit Court after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled several years ago that partisan gerrymandering was outside the scope of federal courts. Democrats have sued over Republican-drawn maps in state courts in places like North Carolina and Pennsylvania in recent years. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The case will go before a five-judge panel appointed by the state’s chief justice. That panel would redraw district lines if it agrees with Republicans that the lines violate state law.

The lawsuit is one of the opening salvos in what is expected to be a barrage of litigation challenging virtually every map passed by a partisan legislature. Already, Republicans have sued over Democratic-drawn maps in Illinois. Democratic groups have sued several states preemptively — including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Minnesota — in anticipation of a gridlocked process in which neither Democrats nor Republicans can reach a majority necessary to approve new maps.

For the minority in an inherently partisan process, the courts offer a no-lose venue, observers say.

“The Democrats have no incentive not to challenge any Republican-passed map, and the Republicans have no incentive not to challenge the Democrat-passed map,” said Jason Torchinsky, an election law expert and general counsel at the National Republican Redistricting Trust. “The incentive is, whoever feels like they’re on the losing side should sue.”