Vancouver resident John Milem was dubbed the “ultimate redistricting geek” in a tweet Friday by Seattle Times politics writer Jim Brunner. On Sunday, the state Redistricting Commission passed a resolution recognizing Milem as the equivalent of the redistricting volunteer of the year. Milem describes himself as an “advocate for redistricting in the public interest.”
Without pay or position, the 75-year-old resident of Vancouver’s Fircrest Neighborhood attended all of the commission’s 18 public forums around the state and all of the commission’s other regular and special meetings in Olympia, with the exception of three. (He missed two meetings because he was taking part in Clark County’s redistricting process for county commissioner seats). His son, Mark, customized open-source software on which Milem developed independent state maps, suggestions and corrections that would streamline the election process and represent the character of communities. On Saturday, New Year’s Eve, he stayed up all night reviewing proposed legislative maps so he could bring the state Redistricting Commission suggestions on Sunday, the commission’s deadline to complete the maps. Although the commission incorporated many of his housekeeping suggestions in their final plan approved Sunday, Milem says he is disappointed with the final maps because they still don’t represent the public interest.
“He was absolutely unique in this process,” said Genevieve O’Sullivan, the commission’s communications director. “A lot of people were interested, but John ended up interacting with everyone on the staff. He worked with the GIS guys. He followed us around the state. I can’t imagine how much time he spent. Not being an employee with us or part of the commission, it was quite amazing to see his commitment to seeing this done correctly.”
Milem’s interest in redistricting was sparked as a political science student at University of Washington in 1958 when he worked on the campaign to reelect John Ryder to the state Senate. He met redistricting Commissioner Slade Gorton during the campaign. Two years later, he helped Gorton draft some redistricting proposals for the state House of Representatives. The proposals never made it to committee hearings. Later, Milem researched redistricting as a student at Harvard Law School under Professor Archibald Cox, former U.S. Solicitor General under John F. Kennedy. Milem was intrigued by the power of redistricting on the political process. He graduated, moving on to careers as an attorney and then chief financial officer of an offshore drilling company before returning to redistricting.
Kentucky and Texas
Milem again became involved in redistricting in the 1990s in Kentucky after he met the attorney who won a court case against the state for unfair redistricting; Milem gave free advice to the state on how to comply with the court order to redraw the districts. He continued in a similar role in Texas.
Redistricting happens once every 10 years to balance out population inequalities after updated census figures are released. When it came time to redistrict Washington, Milem saw it as an opportunity to help improve the process.
“I have this sense that when a citizen has a special affinity for something, you need to get out there and see what you can do to make things better,” Milem said.
His wife, Mary Lou, has shared the journey with him. She has accompanied him to most of the meetings.
“Redistricting is his passion,” she says.
On Sunday, the five-member commission passed a resolution to recognize Milem for his “dedication, persistence and uncanny ability to crunch the numbers in record time or through the night.”
“John Milem, like no one else, has faithfully attended each of the commission meetings and has consistently provided the commission with rigorous independent analysis and detailed recommendations and … was not compensated for his time or reimbursed for personal expenses necessary to attend the many public meetings and forums held by the commission,” the resolution stated.
Milem advocates for redistricting that follows a formula rather than political preferences. Redistricting was supposed to avoid splitting cities and counties. Yet the congressional maps split nine counties compared with seven in the previous map, Milem says. He says it was only necessary to split three to four counties. Seventeen counties are split in the legislative map. Only 11 needed to be split, he says.
He says political interests, such as the desire to keep an incumbent in his/her seat or wanting to keep Democrats/Republics in a district, prevented that from happening. He also believes legislative districts should be named to reflect the community each represents rather than numbered. For instance, he would name districts Vancouver East, Vancouver West, Battle Ground, Longview and so on.
The commission largely ignored all of Milem’s revolutionary proposals, but they heeded him when it came time to clean up the maps.
“The role they let me play was in the small stuff,” he said.
Critical role at end
Milem’s role was critical during the tail end of the process when the commission had to quickly make corrections in areas where census maps didn’t match up with city and county borders or where the commission had unintentionally created new precincts with just a couple of people in each, staff members said.
Emily Walters, policy analyst on redistricting for the Senate Democratic Caucus, said as a third party, Milem helped make last-minute tweaks more efficient. Walters said respective staff from the Democratic and Republican appointees tend to be suspicious of each other’s suggestions, but when Milem made a suggestion, both sides gave it more credibility.
For instance, the commission quickly approved Milem’s suggestion to make the 39th Legislative District’s southern boundary follow the Snohomish School District rather than census tracts, which divide up voters in the school district among three precincts. Under Milem’s revision, the school district has only two precincts, which follow school district lines. That makes it easier for election officials when a school district election happens simultaneously with a legislative election.
Milem says the commission fell short of its charge from voters in 1983 to take the politics out of redistricting. That year, voters approved a ballot measure to take the redistricting out of the Legislature’s hands and create an independent commission to complete the task. The House and Senate each appoint a Democrat and Republican to serve as commissioners. Commissioners appoint a non-voting chair.
“The people have not had the benefit of their vote,” Milem says.
The political interests now represented by Democratic and Republican appointees, rather than the Legislature itself, are glaring in the map, he says. For instance, take the newly redrawn legislative districts bisecting Clark County. The county is now split into five legislative districts: the 14th, the 17th, the 18th, the 20th and the 49th.
Milem uses his finger to trace the areas the commission carved out to prevent 17th District incumbents state Sen. Don Benton and state Rep. Tim Probst from being displaced.
“Look at the 18th District,” Milem says. “It’s one arm short of a swastika. These are the things (the commission) wasn’t supposed to do. Districts are supposed to be compact.”