Callaghan: New use found for gerrymandering

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.

If there’s one thing regular folks know about post-Census redistricting, it’s that gerrymandering is bad. The term was first used in 1812 when then-Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts was blamed for a district so manipulated for partisan purposes that it resembled a salamander. It has become a label for any redistricting efforts that give advantage to one party over another. It should, however, be reserved for those times when hyper-partisan districts also aren’t compact and contiguous.

In the just-completed work of the Washington State Redistricting Commission, there doesn’t appear to be much evidence of classic gerrymandering. Washington is considered a leader in a form of redistricting that takes the power away from whichever party is in power and gives it to a commission with two Republicans and two Democrats. New maps must have bipartisan support. That hasn’t reduced the likelihood of districts that favor one party over another or districts that protect incumbents. What this balance of power has done is create plans that protect both parties’ incumbents. Commissioners created so-called swing districts only where no incumbent existed or where the underlying demographics made safe districts impossible.

At least most of the safe partisan districts are relatively compact and contiguous. The exception is the new 9th Congressional that meanders from the Tacoma Dome to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and Bellevue. It includes First Hill, Leschi and Mount Baker in Seattle, both landings of the Mercer Island floating bridge, Renton, SeaTac, Kent, Federal Way and the Port of Tacoma. With Mercer Island as the metaphorical meal, this political amphibian’s jaws are spread open on either side. Its southern tail slaps the part of Tacoma that includes the home of its incumbent — Democratic Rep. Adam Smith.

Majority-minority

What do all of these disparate parts of Puget Sound have in common? By adding up the minority populations in these areas, the commission was able to create the seemingly contradictory entity known as a majority-minority district. That is, minority residents make up more than 50 percent of the district. Such a district was a goal of the commissioners, partly at the urging of advocacy groups who think it will enhance the political clout of under-represented minority groups and partly for fear of lawsuits under the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the Federal Voting Right Act.

The commission also ended up with four majority-minority districts among the 49 legislative districts — the 11th, 33rd and 37th in Seattle and the 15th in Yakima. Tacoma’s 29th is close, at 48 percent. But unlike the 9th Congressional District, the legislative districts are all relatively compact and contiguous. The new 9th also may be based on a creative reading of court rulings that have tried to find the balance between diluting minority populations among several districts to reduce clout and packing those populations into a single district to prevent them from influencing elections in more than one district.

The decision that provides most guidance is Thornburg v. Gingles, which created a test that aggrieved minority groups must meet. To show discrimination, the groups must be large enough and compact enough to make up a majority-minority district, they must be politically cohesive and they must show that bloc voting by whites has thwarted their preferred candidates. Unlike in Yakima, it is questionable whether any single minority group in Western Washington could have met that test. The new 9th, for example, is a collection of Asians (21 percent), Hispanics (11.8), blacks (11.2), other nonwhites (5.8), mixed race (5.57), Pacific Islanders (1.28) and Native Americans (0.8). As shown, they are not geographically compact — and it might be a stretch to say there is political cohesion between say, Korean Americans in South King County, blacks in south Seattle and Asians in Bellevue.

The final maps do lower the odds for a legal challenge from minority groups. And the new 9th has a characteristic that it lacked before. What had been a nominally swing district — having elected one Republican in its 20 years of life — is now safely Democratic.