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Bring democracy closer to the people

State Rep. Hans Dunshee

Though we share the same first name, we represent different parts of the state and different parties.

We’re both sponsoring House Bill 1121, to divide our state’s legislative districts in half, because it would better serve our citizens.

Now, there are 49 legislative districts in our state, each with two representatives and one senator. We propose to keep the same number of state legislators, but to split up districts so that representatives serve a smaller number of citizens without serving alongside another lawmaker sharing the same territory. If our bill passes, each representative will have his or her own district after the 2022 redistricting.

Washington’s population has grown by twenty times since the state was founded in 1889, and we think the state’s Founders would appreciate thoughtfulness about how citizens are represented in Olympia.

Here’s why this reform makes sense:

First, split districts will bring legislators closer to the people. While a Senate is designed to be more distant — to represent states as opposed to districts at the federal level, and with fewer elections — a House of Representatives is designed to have localized constituencies and frequent elections.

This distinction between House and Senate was central to the debates between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists at the beginning of the country, with the anti-Federalists asking for even smaller, more localized Congressional districts. At the state level, a constituency of 137,000 is not impossible to represent, but it places steeper demands on a citizen legislator who must take in the concerns of multiple communities. A House district of 70,000 people would increase the likelihood that citizens know their representative and their representative knows them.

Second, localized House districts will enhance the role of place in public life. An existing legislative district of 137,000 people may encompass multiple “communities of interest,” in the parlance of redistricting, and dozens of jurisdictions: counties, cities, school districts, ports. It takes in rich and poor neighborhoods and educational and cultural and commercial institutions of all sorts.

It includes various geographic features, from mountains to rivers to islands. A legislator should know and love all of these things and places if she or he is to serve the people who inhabit them. In an even smaller territory of representation, each main street and historic building, each stream and hillside becomes relatively more important. Washingtonians especially know the importance of place. A smaller district promotes a deeper pride of place, which is fitting in a state like ours.

Third, split districts will increase the willingness of citizens to offer themselves for public service. This is partly because the campaign process will be easier, allowing candidates to reach a higher percentage of doorsteps and attend a higher percentage of key local events while maintaining another livelihood. Once in office, representatives will have fewer constituent calls and less casework, which means busy professionals who wear other titles of community leadership can more easily balance their calendar.

Fourth, localized House seats are a plausible alternative to a professionalized legislature. As the states have grown, legislatures have had to deal with more complexities of law, bigger agencies, larger constituencies. Ten of the 50 states have full-time legislatures. Washingtonians have always preferred part-time legislators.

Our state constitution begins with the words, “All political power is inherent in the people,” and we like to know that our legislators come from among the people. Rather than asking legislators to spend more time on the job, we should make it easier for them to be part-time.

Fifth, localized House districts will help to control the skyrocketing costs of campaigns. Sadly, $1 million races, in terms of combined fundraising and spending by candidates and independent interest groups, are becoming more common. While no fewer House seats will be at stake than before a split district plan, candidates and interest groups won’t have to spend as much money to reach voters. Instead of a targeted mailing to 20,000 swing voters, a candidate can target 10,000 voters. This will require less time “dialing for dollars” from lobbyists and major contributors. The split district solution is a sensible campaign finance reform.

Finally, split districts will make it easier for challengers to take on incumbents. With less money to raise and less geographic territory to cover, it will be easier for a hard-working challenger to beat a better-funded incumbent. A challenger would reasonably be able to reach most of the voters in a district of 70,000 people by meeting them face-to-face. The larger an electorate, the more campaigning is driven by money and media, which almost always are privileges of an incumbent. The smaller an electorate, the more likely that human interaction and relationships can make the difference.

Politics, after all, is about relationships. We believe that smaller state House districts will make politics more relational, more people-centered and place-centered.

What do you think? It’s your democracy.

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