Washington’s bipartisan redistricting commission is back in action. During 2021, members will divvy up the state landscape, determining which voters will vote in which legislative and congressional elections.
Created by voters in 1983, this once-a-decade process spares Washington from the gerrymandering headaches — and partisan blame — other states routinely suffer. For it to succeed in equitably serving voter interests, the public must lend a hand.
The five-member commission comprises two appointed Democrats and two Republicans, who in turn settle on a nonpartisan, nonvoting chair. Consensus is the goal.
The group has until November to draw this year’s maps using updated census data and public input. That on-the-ground knowledge matters, said League of Women Voters of Washington redistricting chair Alison McCaffree.
“We can’t just let the computers do it because we wouldn’t want to leave it to the algorithms,” McCaffree said. “It’s about deeply understanding who’s in our state and what groups are represented, and then balancing all those interests. The only way the commissioners know what those interests are is if (the residents) say something.”
The last decade’s redistricting put Issaquah residents in the 8th Congressional District with East Wenatchee and Chelan, more than 130 miles east. With most of the district population on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, residents of this wide stretch of Washington’s east side face a challenge getting political attention for their very different set of needs. The same need to put vast expanses of Washington into the same congressional district stretched the 4th and 5th districts on the east side of the state from the Canada border to the Oregon line. This places urban Spokane, agricultural Walla Walla and the Colville National Forest’s small towns all within the 5th, among other disparities.
Similarly, voters in other regions have a strong interest in making sure their areas aren’t chopped up. The city of Kirkland and the Yakama Reservation sit on opposite sides of the Cascades, but leaders from both jurisdictions want to recover the political clout diminished when redistricting scissors split each between two districts. The same goes for residents of Bremerton, the Colville Reservation and Wenatchee.
The U.S. Census statistics used to draw the maps will be delayed this year — both by the pandemic and the former administration’s manipulation of the system. Interested voters should look at the state’s population estimates carefully to prepare for likely outcomes.
The district map will change considerably because of population shifts. Washington appears likely to keep 10 Congressional districts, according to Brookings Institution estimates. Those seats must represent roughly equal population, so the fast growth around Puget Sound will mean tighter districts on the west side.
Voters who understand these factors can play a powerful role in redistricting. A decade ago, the commission collected 600 public comments. McCaffree says tripling that number ought to be within reach this year.
The future makeup of powerful branches of government will be shaped in these meetings. The easy access and the high political stakes involved should compel every concerned voter to consider taking part.