After a failed rush to make deadline largely out of public view, the Washington State Redistricting Commission did belatedly achieve something meaningful: bipartisan consensus on political district-making.
Their election district maps arrived a day late and carry no legal weight. But the Washington Supreme Court, now activated by the commission’s missed deadline, should embrace the commissioners’ months of statewide research and public input and approve those maps for Congress and Legislature elections for the coming decade.
While the court has full authority to reopen the maps and take until April drawing political borders from scratch, that would add a secretive step to the process and produce results not subject to bipartisan debate. Eight of the court’s nine justices hail from west of the Cascades, and a majority reached the high court through Democratic governors’ appointments. The perceptions of a process that generates a map by the court thus comprised would likely inflame partisan debate. Detente ought to be a shared goal.
No question the commissioners’ actions, including flouting of the public transparency written into the underlying law, were disappointing. This behavior challenged decades of boasting that this voter-enacted mechanism is a reliable model for the nation. A system that in 1991, 2001 and 2011 functioned as an elegant, bipartisan tool for drawing the state’s election boundaries using compromise and transparency could not withstand the political pressures of 2021.
The commissioners — one each nominated by Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate — stand behind the plan. So does the nonpartisan commission chair, Sarah Augustine. Joining them are the Democratic Speaker of the House and the leaders of the House and Senate Republican caucuses. Only state Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, a Democrat, has held off supporting the maps. Though the commission created a majority Latino legislative district in the Yakima Valley, Billig suggests the map did not go far enough, but other analysis finds strong progress.
The new maps do not wholly please everyone, which is the definition of political compromise. Five incumbent legislators — Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, and two members of each party in the House — would be drawn out of the districts they represent. But for them, and potential candidates statewide, quick approval of the commission’s maps would provide certainty months ahead of the May filing deadline. Having the court draw districts from scratch could keep districts uncertain well into spring.
In addition to the political pressure endemic to the job, the 2021 redistricting commissioners faced novel and significant challenges, including unprecedented U.S. Census delays; the Legislature’s revised deadline of Nov. 15 instead of Jan. 1; and the unprecedented nature of pandemic-required remote meetings. Indeed, they failed to complete the work by the deadline, but they did complete it — and all five stand behind the maps they produced.
The Supreme Court can help state government recover from this pratfall by going with the maps in hand, and respecting the balanced process that created them.