Callaghan: Redistricting still a partisan process

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

When Washington voters approved an amendment to the state constitution in 1983, they apparently were motivated by a desire for political reform. The state had just gone through a rather disastrous attempt to redraw the its legislative and congressional boundaries. But a federal lawsuit tossed out the congressional plan, and good-government groups succeeded in promoting something called the bipartisan redistricting commission.

Under this reform, each of the four party caucuses in the Legislature would appoint a commissioner. Those four would then choose a nonvoting chairman. Since it takes three votes — at least one from each party — to approve a plan, it demands bipartisanship.

By a few measurements, it’s been a success. The commission has been used three times without a successful legal challenge. And compared to what it replaced, it is an improvement. Before, whichever party controlled the Legislature controlled the mapmaking. As expected, the lines were drawn to the advantage of the party in control. In 1981, for example, Republican majorities in the Legislature split two districts into A and B parts to assure that they would capture at least one of the House seats. That year also gave birth to something known as the Kiskaddon Pimple, a tiny notch that crossed the King-Snohomish County line to keep incumbent Sen. Bill Kiskaddon inside his district. (Despite that help, Kiskaddon lost in 1988 to an unknown challenger named Patty Murray).

In the event that legislative power was divided, say between a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, the process often bogged down and fell to the courts. It was great fun to watch but not so beneficial to the body politic.

Slightly more transparent

So what we have now is better than that. It is a bit more transparent, because the meetings are governed by the state open meetings act and public records law. The constitution gives guidelines as to what new maps should look like: have districts as nearly equal in population “as practicable;” be contiguous, compact and convenient; and separated by natural, political or well-known artificial boundary lines. But it is not nonpartisan. If people hoped turning over this highly political task to a highly political commission would accomplish such a thing, they will be disappointed. Remember, to even reach the ballot, the constitutional amendment had to pass the Legislature, and members were understandably reluctant to give up too much power. The amendment does pay lip service to broader reform when it demands that the commission’s final plan “shall not be drawn purposefully to favor or discriminate against any political party or group.” That requirement, however, has been mostly ignored.

During a public hearing last week, commissioners heard public testimony. Some witnesses wanted to keep their small communities together within a single district so as not to have their clout diluted. Others, like Tacoma, wanted to be split into two districts so as to have their clout enlarged.

Still others made the argument for so-called majority-minority districts. Those are districts called for in federal law to concentrate racial minorities in such a way as to give them the chance to elect minority lawmakers. But at least one said the process is just as political as the old system. That is, the parties still protect their incumbents, they still try to draw maps that will help their party win elections. It’s just that they now must help each other get some of what each desires. “It seems like there is a culture around redistricting that these four commissioners should be appointed by their parties to gerrymander our state on behalf of political parties to protect incumbents and to ensure a concentration of racial minorities,” said David Anderson of Olympia. “I didn’t get that memo and I don’t recall seeing that in the constitution,” Anderson said.

The commissioners listened politely, perhaps wondering how anyone could be so naive as to think that — despite the clear language of the state constitution — this is anything but a partisan process.