With less than a week to go before the deadline to redraw the boundaries of Washington’s congressional and legislative district maps, members of the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission say they’re confident they can reach agreement.
But sticking points remain. An array of those who testified this week said they’re dissatisfied with aspects of proposals that have been released so far, including plans for South Seattle that critics say would unjustly divide communities of color.
Meanwhile, a potential showdown has been brewing over Hispanic legislative representation in Central Washington, with Republicans and Democrats at odds over federal voting-rights requirements.
At least three of the four voting members of the commission — two Democrats and two Republicans, all appointed by legislative caucus leaders — must agree to the new maps by Nov. 15.
If they fail, the task will fall to the state Supreme Court. That has not happened since the state agreed to hand redistricting authority to a bipartisan commission after the 1990 census.
At a meeting Monday, commissioners said they expect to continue that streak of successful compromises.
“We are having regular substantive discussions on both the congressional and legislative maps,” said Paul Graves, a former state legislator and one of the Republican commissioners, during the meeting held via video.
“We are at a critical point,” said April Sims, a state labor council leader and Democratic commissioner. “I remain optimistic that we will get our final maps negotiated and have something for the commission to adopt.”
Unlike Washington, many states still leave redistricting entirely in the hands of whichever political party controls its legislature, leading to naked power plays and inevitable lawsuits from the minority party. More than 49 redistricting lawsuits had been filed in at least 22 states as of mid-September, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts Stateline blog.
The stakes are high for Washington’s redistricting talks, as new maps for the state’s 10 U.S. House districts and 49 legislative districts will be in place for the next decade, starting with the 2022 midterms.
Under state law, the districts must be drawn to be roughly equal in population, and avoid discrimination against any group or gerrymandering for pure partisan advantage. They’re also supposed to avoid splitting up cities and other political subdivisions, and communities of interest to the extent possible.
Republican and Democratic commissioners released sets of dueling map proposals in September, showing how they’d balance legal requirements while angling to benefit their party in upcoming elections.
As they continue final talks, commissioners are under pressure from critics of their publicly released proposals.
Some progressive activists and local politicians oppose maps that would split South Seattle neighborhoods such as Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley from South King County cities including Renton, Tukwila and SeaTac. They’re all part of the current 9th Congressional District, drawn 10 years ago as the state’s first congressional district with a majority population of people of color.
The new proposed maps would, to varying degrees, alter the 9th District, with proposals by Sims and Republican commissioner and former state Sen. Joe Fain uniting South Seattle with the rest of the city in the 7th Congressional District. The plan by Graves would merge much of South Seattle with Eastside cities including Issaquah and Sammamish.
At Monday’s commission meeting, some urged the panel to keep South Seattle with the South King County cities, and loop in areas including Burien to create a district with a population of 60% people of color.
”Please don’t dilute the electoral power of these communities of color,” said Metropolitan King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who joined Seattle City Council member Tammy Morales and others in asking that South Seattle remain in a district with the south county cities, rather than being grouped with whiter, wealthier cities and neighborhoods.
South Seattle has “vastly different priorities than the rest of Seattle,” said Andrew Hong, statewide director for Redistricting Justice for Washington, a coalition of progressive groups lobbying for a more diverse 9th District map.
In an interview, Hong called all of the initial maps “inadequate” and said Democratic commissioners have to some extent prioritized protecting incumbents, such as U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, the longtime congressman from the 9th District.
“To me, this whole mess shows that bipartisan is not the same as nonpartisan,” said Aram Falsafi, a resident of Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, criticizing commissioners from both political parties during Monday’s public meeting. “If this process fails the residents of South Seattle, some of us are going to work extra hard … to make sure the next redistricting commission is actually nonpartisan with no political hacks.”
Another point of contention has emerged over whether to create a Central Washington legislative district with a voting-age population of majority Hispanic residents.
Democratic commissioners Sims and Brady Piñeiro Walkinshaw, a former state lawmaker, proposed redrawing the 14th Legislative District centered on the Yakima area and including the Yakama Nation Reservation.
They issued their proposals after commissioning an analysis by Matt Barreto, a political science professor and faculty co-director of the UCLA Voting Rights Project. His analysis found the initial maps proposed by all four commissioners would violate the federal Voting Rights Act, potentially opening up the state to lawsuits and court intervention.
Barreto’s analysis said the commission must include the majority Hispanic legislative district, based on citizen voting-age population, to allow Latino voters to elect candidates of their choice. His analysis noted the Voting Rights Act prohibits political maps that use racial gerrymandering to “crack” minority voting blocs and limit their political clout.
Republicans have pushed back, commissioning their own legal analysis saying the Democratic proposals would create oddly shaped, noncompact districts in violation of the law — and amount to a partisan gerrymander that would draw its own legal challenges.
Noting the Democratic Party dominates the Legislature and governor’s office, the Republican legal memo, written by attorneys at the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, said the Democratic maps would further consolidate the majority party’s power and “strip the minority party of a meaningful opportunity to compete in Washington State’s political process…”
Those and other disagreements notwithstanding, the commission’s nonpartisan and nonvoting chair, Sarah Augustine, urged commissioners to live up to their mandate and reach an agreement — in part to honor the thousands of members of the public who have weighed in on the process.
“We owe it to them to ensure that the time and effort that they have made leads to final maps,” she said.