How well did WA do with redistricting? New report grades the state’s process

By: - October 12, 2023 4:58 pm

A map of state legislative districts in Washington. (Washington State Redistricting Commission)

Washington’s framework for redrawing legislative and congressional districts is working OK but there’s room for improvement, particularly with transparency and keeping politicians away from the process. 

That’s according to a new report that looks at redistricting across the country. The Coalition Hub for Advancing Redistricting & Grassroots Engagement says it based its findings on hundreds of on-the-ground interviews and surveys. The group collected this feedback nationwide, gauging the fairness and functionality of redistricting programs and assigning grades to each state.

Washington scored B-minus. Ten states did better, receiving an A-minus or a B. But 35 were further down the list, with grades of C-plus or lower, including seven with F grades.

In Washington, a five-member independent redistricting commission draws the boundaries of districts for the Legislature and Congress. The top Democrats and Republicans in each chamber of the state Legislature select four commissioners who select the fifth to serve as the non-voting chairperson. If they can’t decide, the state Supreme Court selects the fifth person.

So why did Washington get dinged? Lack of transparency during its work in 2021 is one critique.

As the report notes, “In the eleventh hour as the commission was poised to miss the legal deadlines for approving a redistricting plan, the members of the commission decided to leave a publicly noticed meeting and go behind closed doors to negotiate final redistricting plans.” 

The commission, the report goes on to recount, reconvened back into a public meeting only minutes before a midnight deadline, voting to approve maps that weren’t in writing or publicly available. It amounted to a violation of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

“Advocates noted that much of the substance of the redistricting process was done behind the scenes instead of in public,” the report adds.

Another shortcoming with the panel’s work, the report says, was a failure to adequately serve communities of color. 

Here the authors point to the controversy over the 15th Legislative District in the Yakima Valley. The district’s boundaries have been the target of two lawsuits, with a federal judge ordering them redrawn over concerns the agreed-upon map disempowered Latino voters. Parties in both of those lawsuits are pursuing appeals – one at the U.S. Supreme Court.

As for other lessons learned and areas where Washington’s redistricting process could be refined, the report notes the commission’s work is still susceptible to a degree of political influence. Lawmakers appoint the panel’s members and, with two-thirds majorities in both chambers, the Legislature can amend the boundaries the commission comes up with.

The report also says that the commission-approved maps did improve representation of tribal communities. And it notes that a strong coalition of nonprofit and advocacy groups helped to boost public input and engagement and resolve disagreements over district boundaries.

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Bill Lucia
Bill Lucia

Bill Lucia is the Standard’s editor-in-chief. He’s covered state and local policy and politics for a decade, nationwide for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and in Seattle for Crosscut.