Late last year, the Washington State Redistricting Commission held last-minute, closed-door meetings (perhaps in violation of state law), reportedly engaged in deal-making to keep some legislators in their districts and missed the deadline for redrawing congressional and legislative districts.
In Clark County, the then-county chair injected herself into the redistricting process, the committee tasked with drawing boundaries for county council positions was unable to reach an agreement, the county council deadlocked on votes over several proposed maps, county staff drew up another proposal, and a new county councilor produced yet another proposal during his first week on the job. Candidates can begin filing for council positions next week, but they still don’t know which district they would represent.
Despite all this, Washington has an advanced redistricting system that avoids much of the partisanship that infects the process in other states. Clearly, it is not good enough.
Redistricting — and gerrymandering — has become a prominent part of the political vernacular in recent years. With hyper-partisan times leading to hyper-awareness about political systems, much attention is given to the process for drawing boundaries.
It is an important issue. Imagine an area with 25 voters who lean Republican and 25 who lean Democratic. Let’s say those voters will select 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.
In one real-life example, in 2016 in North Carolina, Democrats received 47 percent of the statewide vote for the U.S. House of Representatives but ended up with 23 percent of the representatives.
The system gives great power to the people who draw the maps. In most states, that is the Legislature, which allows the majority party to entrench that majority while disenfranchising supporters of the minority party. It also has been used to disenfranchise ethnic and racial minorities, an aspect that is receiving overdue attention from activists and the courts.
In New York last week, the state’s highest court invalidated House and Senate districts that had been drawn by the Democratic-controlled legislature. In Ohio, a Republican-led state commission resubmitted maps that already have been rejected by the state Supreme Court.
Currently, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, proposed maps are being upheld by litigation in 11 states. And we are less than six months away from the midterm elections, when every seat in the U.S. House will be on the ballot.
Washington’s redistricting system at both the state and county level involves a bipartisan commission with representatives chosen by leaders of the respective parties. It is preferable to handing a scalpel to the inherently partisan Legislature, but it remains flawed. Two bills were introduced in the Legislature this year to improve the process, but neither made it out of committee.
The only parameters for redistricting should be relatively equal population in each district; leaving geographic regions intact as much as possible (it would be incongruous, for example, to split Vancouver between two congressional districts) and using natural boundaries (such as the Cascades) as guidelines.
Perhaps that requires the use of a computer to draw boundaries without the influence of partisanship. But, of course, we would argue over who gets to program the computer.