As the Washington State Redistricting Commission begins its work, residents can be thankful for the state’s system of redrawing congressional and legislative districts. That system is imperfect, yet it is superior to that of most states.
Every 10 years, following the U.S. Census, states are tasked with adjusting election districts based on population changes. This is a vitally important process that often is overlooked.
Local voters saw the impact of redistricting last decade, when population growth gave Washington an additional congressional district. That district was carved out of the area surrounding Olympia, which cut into Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, represented since 2011 by Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground.
Washington is not expected to add or lose a congressional district this time around, removing much of the drama from the redistricting effort. Still, the task of adjusting 49 legislative districts to ensure roughly equal population could play a role in the makeup of the Legislature in coming years.
In 1983, the Legislature and voters amended the state Constitution to create a bipartisan commission for mapping out new districts. Commission members are chosen by leaders of both parties in the Legislature — two chosen by each party. A fifth, nonvoting member is selected as committee chair.
This is preferable to the process in most states, where the Legislature draws new boundaries. That leads to partisan rancor and allows the majority party to draw maps designed to protect that majority.
Such gerrymandering is a threat to American democracy. For example, imagine an area with 25 voters who lean Republican and 25 who lean Democratic, selecting five representatives. By packing one district with 10 voters of similar persuasion, the other four districts can all support the party that drew the map. The result is a 4-1 advantage in terms of representation, even though the total votes are equal.
Washington is able to avoid such partisan boundaries, but our system still has room for improvement. Critics say that districts are drawn under a quid pro quo system to protect incumbents of both parties, reducing the number of contested districts.
As The Seattle Times explains, the system “still leaves a lot of leeway for political horse trading. The redistricting process inevitably produces intrigue, with politicians chiming in publicly or secretly to request shifts in their districts to fend off electoral challenges.”
Meanwhile, activists this year are pushing for communities of color to be more fairly represented, and for the commission to stop splitting the lands of the Colville and Yakama tribes.
The League of Women Voters is working to increase public involvement in the process. Locally, the league is sponsoring an online workshop on Feb. 16 to explain the work of the redistricting commission. Two workshops in March will provide training to members of the public who want to testify before the commission. Public involvement is essential for ensuring a process that often goes unnoticed effectively serves the public.
In recent years, Wisconsin, West Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and other states have been ordered by courts to redraw congressional districts that were created through gerrymandering — typically to disenfranchise minority voters.
Washington has avoided such undemocratic redistricting, thanks in part to a system that does its best to reduce partisanship.