SEATTLE — Days after the failure of Washington’s redistricting commission to reach a deal by its constitutional deadline, fallout continues over went wrong — and what happens now that legislative and congressional maps for the next decade are in the hands of the state Supreme Court.
At a news conference Thursday, the two Democratic and two Republican commissioners presented a largely unified front, expressing regret for the secrecy surrounding their deceptive vote on what they’d claimed was a final agreement on maps, while defending the maps that were belatedly released.
But they failed to clear up key questions, including what exactly they were voting on in the final minutes before the Nov. 15 deadline, with one commissioner acknowledging he didn’t even see the legislative map before it was belatedly sent to the state Supreme Court.
The commission’s explanations so far have not satisfied the state Supreme Court, which Thursday evening ordered the panel to produce by noon Monday “a detailed timeline” of the events of Nov. 15, when the commission was racing to meet its 11:59 p.m. deadline.
“This should include the timing of any votes taken by the commission, exactly what each vote was regarding, and any other actions taken by the commission relevant to their constitutional and statutory obligations,” wrote Chief Justice Stephen González, in the order.
At their news conference, commissioners described their deal before midnight variously as an “agreement” and a “framework” — including some verbal assurances — and said they continued working after the deadline to make smaller, specific decisions.
“We had agreement on either particular political performance or particular, actual boundaries themselves,” said Paul Graves, a Republican commissioner. “And then to translate that into the actual maps themselves, you’ve got to go through and decide this particular block or that particular block.”
For most of their final, five-hour scheduled meeting Monday night, the commissioners, who are volunteers, huddled out of public view, engaging in shuttle diplomacy at Federal Way hotels, where they’d been staying for days, saying they met in groups of two in an attempt to avoid violating the state Open Public Meetings Act.
They emerged just before midnight to take hasty votes on what they claimed were final agreements — while not showing the public what they were voting on.
Some government transparency experts this week said those actions likely violated the public meetings law and at least one lawsuit already has been filed over the alleged violations.
Not until late Tuesday did the commission release maps that they sent to the state Supreme Court, which now is charged with redrawing the maps for Washington’s 10 U.S. House Districts and 49 legislative districts by April 30.
The commissioners didn’t all appear to spend much time reviewing the maps before they were sent to the court Tuesday evening. While April Sims, a Democratic commissioner, said she saw the maps earlier on Tuesday, Graves said he saw them about an hour or two before they were sent. Brady Piñero Walkinshaw, the other Democratic commissioner, said he did not even see the legislative map before it was sent.
Still, all four commissioners urged the Supreme Court to adopt or at least strongly consider the plans, citing the months of work and public testimony involved.
Despite its sour ending, Sims defended the bipartisan process, saying it forces compromise. “It could have easily dissolved into something toxic and ineffective,” she said. “But this process of bringing us together for a shared purpose — it works.”
In a time of hyperpartisan polarization, Washington’s commission isn’t the only one to fail to meet its mandate. A similar bipartisan redistricting panel in Virginia also missed its deadline last month amid political gridlock.
Some in and around the commission have pointed fingers at Walkinshaw, who represented state Senate Democrats, suggesting he and that caucus may have wanted to kick the map-drawing duty to the court all along. Some also pointed to his travel schedule, including a trip to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, about a week before the deadline.
In public, though, the criticism has been somewhat muted — even passive-aggressive.
Republican commissioner Joe Fain, in an interview Wednesday, said “I didn’t feel a sense of urgency from commissioner Walkinshaw about bringing the legislative map to conclusion. I felt a sense of urgency from the other participants.”
In a statement that day, he thanked the other commissioners “for their leadership and goodwill,” but notably excluded Walkinshaw.
The commission’s nonpartisan and nonvoting chair, Sarah Augustine, said in a separate interview Wednesday she found Walkinshaw as “not as engaged” in the process, based on her interactions, especially as the deadline neared.
But by Thursday, after their joint video news conference, Fain called to amend his comments, adding he was “heartened” by Walkinshaw’s decision to support the commission’s agreed-to maps. “I believe that reflects his character to keep commitments,” he said. Augustine also praised Walkinshaw at the news conference.
Walkinshaw, in an interview, said any notion he wanted to scuttle a deal was flatly untrue. “I really wanted to reach a negotiated agreement,” he said, but cited the complexity of negotiations, as well as a moved-up deadline this year, for the failure to reach a deal in time.
As for his travel, Walkinshaw confirmed he attended the Glasgow conference in early November, in his role as CEO of Grist, the online environmental magazine, but said while there he stayed awake late every night working on commission business, and pointed out virtually all the redistricting work had been done remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who was advising Walkinshaw on the Senate Democrats’ map priorities, said it was “ludicrous” to say that he alone could scuttle a deal — as only three out of the four commissioners needed to come to an agreement on maps.
Still, Pedersen acknowledged: “We were maybe less afraid of the court than some of the other caucuses appear to be.”
Those final negotiations for the legislative map revolved around the 44th, 47th and the 28th legislative districts, said Sims. Those districts — in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, respectively — have been considered highly competitive swing districts for much of the past decade.
Pedersen said Democrats had priorities, including the creation of a majority Latino legislative district in Central Washington, that were worth going down to the wire on.
The commission’s belated deal did draw the 15th Legislative District, stretching from Yakima to Othello and Pasco, as majority Latino. But Matt Barreto, a voting rights expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, who had been hired by Senate Democrats, released an analysis Wednesday saying the district fails to meet the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act and would likely not withstand a legal challenge.
Pedersen said the Supreme Court is likely to take such voting rights concerns seriously and look at whether to amend the commission maps.
Republicans were pressing harder for the Supreme Court to simply rubber-stamp the commission’s late maps, without substantive changes.
In a statement, state House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said while he doesn’t like some aspects of the maps, “I believe the court should adopt these maps and respect the public input that went into developing them.”
The court could certainly adopt the commission maps, but is under no legal obligation to give them any weight, said Hugh Spitzer, a University of Washington law professor and expert on the state constitution.
The court could appoint an independent demographer to simply draw maps using the criteria in the constitution, ensuring districts are compact, maintain communities of interest together, and avoid discrimination.
Unlike the partisan commissioners, that process would ignore political considerations such as where incumbents live, Spitzer said, adding: “The court itself in my view would be completely nonpartisan and completely balanced in its approach. I am really confident of that.”
However, Spitzer predicted a fairly drawn Supreme Court map might give Democrats some edge given the state’s demographics and political leanings. “It’s more likely to yield a map that is slightly more favorable to the Democratic Party than a map where the Republicans get to cut some deals and protect themselves,” he said.