Redistricting and Opportunities to Participate
Written by: Nick Federici
Who Decides Who You Get to Vote For?
The Washington State Redistricting Commission, That’s Who.
Every ten years, in the year following the U.S. Census, all states must enact a plan to update and realign their federal Congressional Districts, state Legislative Districts, and local County and City Council Districts. Communities and populations in Washington change over time, so the maps of who represents you have to have their boundaries redrawn to make sure that each district represents an equal number of residents.
Why does this matter to us, and why should it matter to you? Because the maps of who you are able to vote for will literally be rewritten. At the end of this process, you may have somebody different representing you in Washington, DC, at the State Capitol in Olympia, and/or at your County Courthouse or City Hall, for the next ten years, all without you being able to cast a vote.
In many states, whomever is in political control gets to draw the maps without limitations, “gerrymandering” their districts. “Gerrymandering” is when those boundaries are deliberately drawn with the intention of influencing who gets elected, often in ways that benefit the people in control politically, and potentially in ways that discriminate against one or more political, social, cultural, or racial groups. For example, a Republican Legislature could decide to make it dramatically easier for Republican candidates to win more seats by segregating or diluting the distribution of Democratic voters, as has occurred in Texas and some other states. In these states, the only way to ensure that there is a fair process and outcome is for residents to sue on the basis of those redistricting plans being unconstitutionally biased, which courts have recently been increasingly unwilling to act upon. For a more-detailed explanation, please see this discussion.
The good news is that Washington has a much different, more transparent, and better organized system than most other states. After courts repeatedly threw out the Washington State Legislature’s maps several times in the 1950s-70s, in 1983 the Washington State Constitution was amended to give the authority to a bipartisan redistricting commission, the Washington State Redistricting Commission (WSRC), to draw legislative and Congressional district lines. There have been three Commissions to date, in 1991, 2001, and 2011.
The majority and minority party leaders of the Washington Senate and Washington House of Representatives each appoint one registered voter to the commission. Those four appointees then appoint a nonvoting, non-partisan commission chair. Because the sitting politicians choose the commissioners, the Redistricting Commission is considered a bipartisan, rather than an independent commission. The voters who identify as Independents and those who are members of parties other than Democrats and Republicans are not represented since by law the Commission make-up is limited to the top two political parties. Having a non-voting chair is vital to the process because when only four members can vote it requires those four political commissioners to negotiate, compromise and come to agreement.
Since earlier this year, the WSRC has once again been engaged in this work, which will now substantially accelerate and intensify over the next two months, due to the receipt of the 2020 Redistricting Data (Public Law 94-171) Summary Files from the U.S. Census Bureau. By November 15, the WSRC must deliver a final map to the Washington State Legislature for consideration and approval in 2022. Because the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the release of U.S. Census data from April 1, 2021 until the end of August, the timeline for developing, considering, and approving the restricted maps is very compressed.
Fortunately, advances in technology have dramatically increased the transparency of the process, and provide opportunities for meaningful participation by individual voters. One new tool now available to the general public is the DrawYourWA mapping tool developed by the WSRC, which includes all of the official Census Bureau redistricting data. You can log on to the data and mapping resources available at the WSRC’s website, www.redistricting.wa.gov, to better understand each step in the process, as well as provide your own input to the Commission, including drawing your own maps! In addition, the public will be able to send their comments regarding the WSRC’s work right up to November 15 using one of many methods found at the “How to Participate” page on the WSRC website.
There are a number of important Commission dates and deadlines occurring very soon:
- Tuesday, September 21 – Commissioners will each release their proposed state legislative district map.
- Tuesday, September 28 – Commissioners will each release their proposed congressional district map.
- Tuesday, October 5 (7 p.m.) – Statewide Virtual Public Outreach Meeting to receive feedback on state legislative map proposals.
- Saturday, October 9 (10 a.m.) - Statewide Virtual Public Outreach Meeting to receive feedback on congressional map proposals.
- Friday, October 22 – Deadline to ensure full consideration of third-party map submissions by the Commission.
- Monday, November 15 (11:59 p.m.) – Deadline for Commission to submit final maps to the Legislature.
It is the duty of the Commission to attempt to keep together geographic, cultural, and other forms of “communities of interest”, but this is limited by population dynamics and the desire of the two major political parties to protect the seats of incumbent elected officials. It is difficult to create competitive districts in areas where people self-segregate, and it’s unfortunately not possible to take all of the politics out of political decision-making.
Here is an example of the challenges facing the Commission members:
- In the 2010 Census, which governed the last time that statewide redistricting was done, the average state legislative district (of which there are 49) averaged 137,236 in population.
- In the 2020 Census, because of increases in Washington’s population, they must draw legislative districts that average 157,251 in population.
- This is easy in theory, a simple mathematical exercise. However, existing legislative districts must grow, shrink, and/or shift because of population relocation.
- For example, the 43rd Legislative District in Seattle, which includes downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill, Madison Park, Eastlake, University District, Fremont, Wallingford, and Green Lake, had 137,252 residents in 2010. By 2020, its population had grown to 180,014, an increase of 42,762 individuals (31.16%). As a result, the 43rd District must shrink in size and shift in its borders, in order to include just 157,251 residents, which will move about 22,763 people into new districts represented by different elected officials.
- By contrast, the 19th Legislative District in Southwest Washington, which includes Pacific and Wahkiakum Counties, and parts of Grays Harbor County (including Aberdeen but not Hoquiam), Lewis County, and Cowlitz County (including Longview and Kelso) has grown by the least of any district in the state, from 137,232 in 2010 to 144,220 in 2020, an increase of just 6,988 individuals (5.09%). As a result, it must grow in population by about 13,031 to hit that new target of 157,251, which will involve an expansion and relocation of the district’s borders, taking population away from other districts represented by different elected officials.
As a result of all of these changes, it could dramatically change the representation, demographics, political leaning, and chances for election success across the state between Republicans and Democrats, creating impacts on everyone in Washington.
Here is the state data on the district-by-district population changes over the last ten years.
We hope you will take this opportunity to add your voice to the redistricting process by using the DrawYourWA mapping tool and attending the public outreach meetings in October.
My name is Kendra Allman, and I am the new Community Organizing Fellow for the Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund! This means that I will spend the next year helping the Action Fund organize voter engagement and coordinate with our volunteers. I’m excited to be joining the Action Fund team!
A bit about me: I graduated from Bryn Mawr College just a few months ago, where I studied English and Russian. Though not directly related to my upcoming work with the Action Fund, of course, my academics helped greatly in shaping my interests in advocacy and social justice. My Russian degree in particular included several research projects into various issues of social injustice that taught me the dangers of inaction and the immense value of community organizing. I’m looking forward to figuring out how best to use my skills however I can in helping to promote housing justice.
Because of my background in Russian and Slavic studies, I’m hoping for the chance to reach out to some Russian-speaking communities around Washington state with the goal of potentially connecting them to the Action Fund’s resources. If anyone has any info about or connections to Russian-speaking communities experiencing housing injustice, please feel free to reach out to me!
As I mentioned, one of my main duties at the Action Fund will be to coordinate our volunteers to elect housing champions. If you’re interested in volunteering, please sign up with this link!
And if anyone is interested in contacting me, my email is at email@example.com.