Why the state's redistricting plan counts as a success

What some might see as partisan gain (for Republicans) coming out of the redistricting plan actually seems to have been driven by shifting demographics.

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Click to enlarge. Final redistricting plan for Washington state's congressional districts.

What some might see as partisan gain (for Republicans) coming out of the redistricting plan actually seems to have been driven by shifting demographics.

The Washington State Redistricting Commission went down to the wire with its work, but the members ended up with a good plan.

State commission members Slade Gorton, Tim Ceis, Tom Huff, and Dean Foster unanimously agreed on compromise congressional and legislative plans by 10:30 p.m. on New Years Day. It was not a surprise that they agreed to a plan, because they were not about to risk collective defeat.

Having studied redistricting for 40 years, and been involved in many court cases (such as in Washington, Mississippi, and California), I can attest that the Washington process and results are among the best. Given the commission members' forthright admission that they would try to change voters' districts as little as possible and attempt to protect incumbents, all the while enhancing chances for their respective parties, I’d grade the plans as A-minus — within those constraints. And even from an idealistic, good-government point of view, in which incumbency would not be a factor, the plan would still deserve a B. But idealism is not the system we have.

The commission had to come up with redistricting plans for both the congressional districts in the state and the state Legislature.

First, let's review the congressional plan. Washington had the enviable task of configuring a tenth district. The plan is an ingenious compromise that respects the geography of the state and cleverly balances Democratic and Republican aspirations.

This was made easier by U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee’s decision to run for governor. Given the distribution of population and of incumbents, and the need to minimize county splits, there was little option for the state's 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th districts. And given the very high preference of the Democrats for  a district centered on Olympia, by far the largest city of the state without its own district, the Democrats seemed prepared and indeed had to accept  highly reconfigured 1st and 2nd districts, splitting the north Sound between an island, coastal, and urban (and Democratic) west, and a suburban, exurban, small town, and rural east, which probably leans slightly Republican (although President Obama  carried the area in 2008). This compromise is exactly what I predicted and advocated in Crosscut at the start of the process.

The second big change, one that is not only healthy for the state but in reality was totally compelled by our rapid increase in ethnic diversity and growth of minority population, is the creation of a majority-minority district, the pretty drastically redone 9th. This in turn required, fortuitously, the breakup of the city of Seattle in the 7th. This is actually good for Democrats as it avoids the packing and wasting of Democratic votes in a single Seattle-centered district. Again, this is a change I predicted and advocated. The inclusion of Bellevue is a little surprising and a more compact minority majority district could have been drawn, but the end result is not unreasonable, as Bellevue is not the place of few minorities it was a generation ago.

The third big congressional change was the breaking of the Cascade curtain by the inclusion of Chelan and Kittitas counties in the 8th district. This proved far less disruptive than having to shift part of Yakima and/or Benton counties west to the 3rd district.

After the brand-new 10th, the plan's greatest change is in the 1st District, where Inslee has served and which had the least resistance to alteration. This in turned changed the 2nd District, reshaping it more geographically than demographically. The creation of the 10th forced the 9th District north and east, displacing the 8th to the east (to create its crossing of  the Cascades). The new plan most closely reflects the Huff draft plan for the districts 1 through 5 and the 8 district, and the Ceis plan for the 6th, 7th, 9th and 10th districts.

The winners and losers? Winners are Olympia, with its own district; Seattle now being part of two districts; and minorities with a majority district. I have no sense whether, over the decade, folks in Chelan and Kittitas will gain from being in the 8th district or not. The Wenatchee metropolitan area will get two representatives, sort of. One could speculate that the plan slightly benefits the Republican side, but this is because of demographic change, not any weakness in the Democratic negotiations.

Now, the Legislative  plan: Changes in population from 2000 to 2010 were significant, but not so great as to require a drastic shift in districts. Basically the core urban legislative districts from Tacoma through Seattle to Everett grew more slowly than the suburbs and exurbs, so these inner districts had to be displaced outward to varying degrees. Considering the population changes, the commission plan is a pretty amazing topological and demographic achievement, minimizing the amount of disruption.

In addition the growth of the minority population and especially of the Hispanic population in eastern Washington again compelled serious efforts to create majority minority districts. The plan does create three majority-minority districts in the southeast Seattle, south King county area, the 11th, the 33rd, and the 37th. Probably the greatest disruption of the existing system was in the 11th, displacing Sen. Margaret Prentice (who said Wednesday that she will retire after this year), but this was really unavoidable, given the need to expand central Seattle’s 36th, 43rd, and 37th (and 11th) districts.

It is too bad that they were not able to create a majority-minority district in Pierce County, although the 29th comes close and will probably have a majority of minorities within a few years. It was not easy but the commission also came through with a compact and sensible majority Hispanic district in eastern Yakima county (the 15th).

The least compact district in the state becomes the 13th, extending from Snoqualmie Pass to Spokane County, but this was apparently done to address the concerns of the residents of Douglas County, who otherwise would have been divided. Analyzing the legislative plan is difficult without longer review of demographic data and past electoral returns. Overall, it is amazing how minimal change was to most districts.

The 8th legislative district had modest change, retreating to the Richland-Kennewick urban core. The 11th had to shift moderately south and the 32nd moderately north. The most dramatic change is the reconfiguration of the 14th and 15th districts to create the majority Hispanic population for the 15th. The 18th and 20th districts changed, as the growth of Clark County forced the 18th to retreat southward. The previously mentioned 13th looks the most different, more irregular, while the 47th looks rather better. Only Commissioner Foster had proposed the 13th as now adopted. Indeed his draft plans came closest overall (by a small degree) to the final plan.

Generally, it appears that the commissioners in the end went along with the Republican proposals in predominantly Republican areas, as in southeastern Washington, and with Democratic proposals in the metropolitan core.  Republican plans seem to have been more accepted in Pierce County, but this may not imply any partisan benefit. Finally, it would be foolish to predict any significant partisan shift due to the new plans, given the commissioners' desire to avoid changing the status quo and given the cleverness of most of their proposals. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Dick Morrill

Dick Morrill is emeritus professor of geography at the University of Washington and an expert in urban demography.