Thursday, May 26, 2022
May 26, 2022

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Camden: Fix redistricting process

Legislature must address issues that led to failure of state commission

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While gerrymandering is a problem the nation needs to address, recent events reveal Washington’s bipartisan redistricting commission isn’t the perfect replacement for those bad old hyperpartisan legislative practices.

The Washington Redistricting Commission was hailed by “good government” advocates and approved by voters in 1983 after some serious problems with letting the Legislature handle the boundary redraws.

The commission worked pretty well in 1991, 2001 and 2011. Ten years ago the commission struggled a bit to meet its deadline. It needed a long session on New Year’s Eve and a final deal on legislative boundaries New Year’s Day. The Legislature accepted the new boundaries, but not without grumbling a bit.

Under the guise of giving the public more input, better government and saving money, the Legislature in 2016 asked voters to make what it called one of the nation’s best redistricting systems better. It unanimously passed an amendment to the amendment that moved the deadline for the commission to Nov. 15. Lawmakers would still have 30 days after they return for the 2022 session to try to make changes with a two-thirds supermajority. The court would still have until April 30 if the commission missed its deadline.

The new schedule would benefit the public by requiring the final deliberations and decisions to happen before the public got busy with the holidays, supporters said.

Supreme Court won’t step in

The state Supreme Court on Friday declined to adopt a new redistricting plan, saying the Washington Redistricting Commission “substantially complied” with statutory deadlines.

“This is not a situation in which the Supreme Court must step in because the Commission has failed to agree on a plan it believes complies with state and federal requirements,” the justices wrote.

No one wanted to offer an argument against the constitutional amendment. Who would dare go on the record against public participation, good government, saving money and not mucking up the Christmas holidays with redistricting meetings? The measure passed by a 3-to-1 margin.

But in politics, having all legislators and a huge majority of the voters think this is a great idea doesn’t make it so. The amazing digital technology lawmakers claimed would cut six weeks off the job wasn’t any good until the federal government produced the 2020 Census data, which were months late because of bureaucracy and a pandemic.

When it came to making the final decisions, commissioners made deals outside of public view despite their professed love for public participation. As the clock ticked toward midnight on the final day, commissioners were in separate rooms passing proposals back and forth like legislators cutting deals on a controversial bill.

The final deals — commissioners called them agreements or settlements, voting even though they apparently weren’t in written form or final maps drawn — were approved less than a minute before midnight. They didn’t approve a formal resolution adopting the redistricting plan until a few seconds after midnight, according to the sworn statement the commission chair filed with the state Supreme Court.

So much for good government and “ensuring the plan is adopted when the public is better able to provide feedback.”

Legislators should take some lessons from the commission’s failures this time around that were prompted in part by the changes made in 2016.

If they really are concerned about public attention being low during the holidays, they should move the deadline up to Jan. 15, rather than back to Nov. 15. But they should keep the deadline for their changes the same at 30 days after the session starts, because in truth the legislative caucuses are better dialed into the process than almost anyone else.

They should require all discussions that happen on deadline to be open to the public, with no “executive” sessions.

It’s unlikely that the nation will be facing another pandemic or delays in the census data in 2031. But the redistricting amendment should also be amended to allow the Legislature to extend the deadlines for the final boundaries once, for a week, if requested by the commission.

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