Changes ahead for Washington state’s political landscape: Redistricting may bring some drama

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Washington will neither gain nor lose clout in Congress as the once-a-decade reapportionment of the 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives plays out this year.

Due to population booms, seven states, led by Texas and Florida, are expected to gain House seats, while 10 stand to lose seats, including California for the first time, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.

But Washington is projected to stand pat, with 10 House seats.

That could take some of the drama out of the state’s 2021 redistricting process, set to begin this month. Unlike a decade ago, when the state was awarded an additional House seat, there will be no need to drastically redraw political boundaries to squeeze in a new district.

Still, political flashpoints loom as Republicans and Democrats prepare to hash out new maps for the state’s 10 congressional and 49 legislative districts, a process controlled by a bipartisan redistricting commission.

A multiracial coalition is demanding the next round of maps stop dividing the Yakama and Colville Indian nations and provide more electoral power to communities of color. Some reformers say the political parties should be removed from the redistricting process entirely.

Above all, some civic activists want to boost public involvement in the decennial map-drawing that follows the U.S. census — a yearlong slog that is typically monitored mostly by self-interested lawmakers, partisan operatives, journalists and other political geeks.

Delays in the U.S. census could put pressure on the redistricting commission. The Census Bureau missed its Dec. 31 deadline for delivering state population estimates, citing potential problems with COVID-19 restrictions and with the accuracy of its data. The bureau issued a statement last week saying it hoped to complete its count “as close to the statutory deadline as possible,” probably in early 2021.

“It affects every other issue you care about,” said Alison McCaffree, who is leading redistricting efforts for the League of Women Voters of Washington, which has had a long history of involvement on the subject.

The organization is launching a series of “Speak Up Schools” to train people of all political views on how to offer effective testimony into the redistricting process.

Washington’s redistricting system has been praised for avoiding the extreme gerrymandering seen in the majority of states where the party in control of the legislature simply draws maps.

In 1983, after decades of rancorous redistricting fights, the Washington state Legislature and voters amended the state constitution to place political mapping in the hands of a bipartisan commission.

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The Washington State Redistricting Commission consists of four voting members — two Democrats and two Republicans — picked by the leaders of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the state House and Senate. A fifth, nonvoting chairperson is then picked by the voting members.

For 2021, Democrats have picked April Sims, secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, and Brady Piñero Walkinshaw, a former state representative and CEO of Grist, the environmentalist media nonprofit. Republicans have yet to name their appointees ahead of a Jan. 15 deadline.

The commission will have until Nov. 15 to draw up new political boundaries for the congressional and legislative districts. At least three of four members must agree to the maps. The Legislature can make only minor changes to the commission maps and the governor has no role.

Under state law, districts must be made as equal in population as possible and aren’t supposed to be gerrymandered for partisan advantage or discriminate against any group. They’re also supposed to avoid splitting up cities and other political subdivisions.

That still leaves a lot of leeway for political horse trading. The redistricting process inevitably produces intrigue, with politicians chiming in publicly or secretly to request shifts in their districts to fend off electoral challenges.

Such maneuvers are a reminder that the commission remains under the control of Republican and Democratic party legislative leaders.

“It prioritizes the partisan interests of both parties, often leaving behind communities, and particularly communities of color,” said Kamau Chege, managing director at the Washington Census Alliance, a coalition of 92 groups pushing for greater representation for historically marginalized communities.

Chege said the group’s 2021 goals include redrawing Central and Eastern Washington legislative districts that split the lands of the Colville and Yakama Indian tribes. In addition, he pointed to districts in the Yakima area that divide Latino vote strength.

“That doesn’t seem to be something we can tolerate moving forward,” said Chege, calling the current maps “a real failure of having an all-white redistricting commission [in 2011].”

Some states, including Colorado, Michigan and California, have shifted toward more independently appointed citizen panels that include representation for voters unaffiliated with either major party.

Hugh Spitzer, a law professor at the University of Washington, said the state’s redistricting commission was a step in the right direction. “You can’t have one party running roughshod over the other party — that’s good,” he said.

But, Spitzer said a superior model would follow the lead of other countries, such as Canada and Australia, which have independent panels staffed by nonpartisan experts. He also suggested simply appointing a professional demographer to draw maps based on data.

That would, he argued, yield “fairly drawn maps that yield results that are closest to a democratic result — one person one vote.”

Any such changes would require a state constitutional amendment — a big hurdle that would require broad bipartisan support in the Legislature. So far, lawmakers have turned down even relatively modest tweaks.

A proposal before the Legislature last year, House Bill 2575, would have required more public hearings, public-records training for redistricting commissioners and better translation services and accommodations for limited-English speaking persons at commission meetings.

It also would have paid commissioners an $80,000 salary, instead of the $100-a-day stipend they receive now. It would require hiring of additional staff.

The bill passed the state House but died in a Senate committee.

McCaffree and other supporters of the proposal were disappointed, saying such changes could have bolstered the redistricting commission’s public outreach.

Despite the failure, McCaffree said the League of Women Voters will work to increase public involvement.

Ten years ago, she estimated about 840 people testified to the redistricting commission. Leaving aside lobbyists and others paid to attend the commission meetings, about 600 people chimed in.

McCaffree’s goal is to more than double that to 2,000 participants, while also improving the quality of the public testimony.

“We know that we’re stuck with this system until we change it, so we have got to make the most of it, and the way we make the most of it is get more people involved,” she said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or; . Seattle Times political reporter Jim Brunner covers state, local and regional politics.