In its last-minute drive to redraw the state’s political maps, the Washington State Redistricting Commission members’ disregard for public transparency was utterly appalling. A scheduled five-hour “public” meeting Monday night was anything but, culminating with commission members voting seconds before midnight on the framework of political maps that not even they — nor the public — had seen.
This farce followed hours the four partisan commissioners spent evading the state’s Open Public Meetings Act by holding discussions in pairs, which is illegal. Although the phenomenon of shut-off Zoom cameras is new, conducting “serial meetings” or using a “walking quorum” to hold mini-meetings that eventually loop in everyone is not.
To a person, the commissioners expressed remorse about the lack of transparency in a news conference. That is little comfort because open meeting laws are for just this type of circumstance, where political stakes are high and public interest should be protected.
The Legislature should enact reforms to ensure this doesn’t happen again. State redistricting law needs to provide future commissioners more explicit transparency rules, including a requirement to make maps public before convening to vote on them. Bipartisan commissions, convened every 10 years, remain the strongest bet for working up fair district lines.
The public should be outraged that such secrecy surrounded this important process. Political district maps help shape the partisan makeup of the Legislature and state Congressional delegation. A public-records activist has already sued. The Washington Coalition for Open Government is also weighing court action, President Mike Fancher said.
“Even if it doesn’t matter until 10 years from now when they’re doing this again, there needs to be some understanding that the public is entitled to witness this, understand what the discussion was and how decisions were reached,” Fancher said.
Washington redistricting proceedings from a decade ago provide a useful model. Then-commissioners Democrat Tim Ceis and his now-deceased Republican counterpart Slade Gorton threshed out Congressional district boundaries one-on-one on Dec. 27, 2011, then made those maps available for public review and debate for days before a Jan. 1, 2012, commission vote. Redistricting is built to include such intense haggling. It is not intended for the public to have little clue what the haggling produced before it is set in law.
The commission’s nonpartisan, nonvoting chair, Sarah Augustine, said in an interview the reliance on remote-meeting technology fostered the lack of transparency that the 2021 commission operated under. Rigid transparency rules should be enacted to keep technology advances of the next decade from becoming even more of a veil.