As deadlines draw near for reconfiguring Washington’s congressional and legislative districts, officials should pay particular attention to a sprawling district in Clark County.
The 18th Legislative District is a far-flung, disjointed swath that defies logic. In what is best described as an upside-down Y shape, it encompasses Washougal, Camas, Yacolt, a portion of Battle Ground, La Center, Ridgefield and the Felida area.
An adventurer could visit Lacamas Lake, Yale Lake, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and Green Lake (near Vancouver Lake) without ever leaving the 18th District. As anybody familiar with Clark County geography knows, you could fill most of an afternoon with such an excursion. But, as anybody familiar with drawing legislative districts knows, employing infallible logic to the process is nearly impossible.
That is the task facing the Washington State Redistricting Commission, which includes two members selected by legislative Republicans and two chosen by legislative Democrats. A fifth, nonvoting chair was selected by commission members, and they started work in January.
By Nov. 15, three of the voting members must agree on a plan to submit to the Legislature. Lawmakers may make limited changes to the proposal; if an agreement is not reached, the state Supreme Court will draw the maps.
Redistricting is an oft-overlooked facet of American democracy that can have broad implications. And Washington residents should be proud that our system is superior to that of most states, where legislatures typically draw the maps along partisan lines. This often results in gerrymandering designed to keep the majority party in power.
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. Even though the total votes are equal, the result is a 4-1 advantage in terms of representation — and a threat to American democracy.
In Oregon, for comparison, Gov. Kate Brown has called a special session for the purpose of drawing that state’s map — including an additional congressional district. But the Associated Press reports: “Lawmakers have succeeded in passing a legal redistricting plan just twice since 1911.”
The goal for the commission is to create districts of similar population. In Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, represented by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, population change over the past decade likely will lead to minimal changes to the district’s boundaries. By comparison, the 7th District, which includes most of Seattle, has seen explosive population growth and likely will have its boundaries trimmed.
Washington’s 49 legislative districts have a target of 157,000 residents apiece. According to U.S. Census numbers that will be used to create those districts, Clark County has 503,311 residents. With two legislative districts based in neighboring counties leaking into Clark County, the task is basically to divide the county into three equitable districts.
During a remote public hearing with the commission in June, several speakers expressed frustration at a lack of competitive elections. Redrawing maps will not solve that issue; sharp polarization between urban and rural areas cannot be smoothed over by redistricting. But voters at least can advocate for districts that make sense when viewed on a map.
The commission can start by looking at the 18th Legislative District.