How to end gerrymandering in Washington state

To improve our democracy, we need to take party politics out of our redistricting system once and for all. 

Washington's redistricting system has improved over the years, but it still allows for "bipartisan, sweetheart gerrymandering," writes Hugh Spitzer. (Valerie Niemeyer)

“Gerrymandering” has few friends. Most Americans oppose the longtime practice of manipulating legislative district boundaries to increase the dominant party’s control and protect incumbents. The idea of gerrymandering is to crowd the opposition’s voters into a few districts, so the controlling party increases chances of holding the rest. This technique, which has been used by both parties, subverts the will of the majority and reduces the competition that is vital to democratic government and good public policy.

It is a problem, but the solution is simple: Redistricting by nonpolitical professionals who have no partisan motives.

Washington state took a step toward eliminating partisan control of redistricting in 1983, when voters approved Amendment 74. The state constitution now mandates a five-member redistricting commission to redraw legislative district boundaries every 10 years, following the decennial federal census, which is being conducted right now. The amendment had bipartisan legislative support and the backing of “good government” groups, including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

Read more in our series on democracy in Washington state.

The 1983 amendment was an improvement over the old method, still used in 35 states, where legislatures do the redistricting. But Washington’s improved system isn’t improved enough. That’s because gerrymandering is still happening; it’s just that the parties do it together. Our commission sets up a two-party “gentlemen’s agreement” system in which the parties actually cooperate on the gerrymandering to design districts each party thinks are good enough for its strategy going forward.

Our current system still allows incumbent protectionism and reduces party competition. In a recent Crosscut article, Melissa Santos quotes 10th District U.S, Rep. Denny Heck critiquing our system as one that “leans toward politicians picking their voters…. It’s a bipartisan racket, but a bit of a racket nonetheless.”

Our redistricting commission comprises one independent chair and four voting members: two Democrats and two Republicans, appointed by legislative party leaders. Under Washington state’s redistricting system, the independent chair has no vote at all and can’t break a tie. So the result must satisfy the parties rather than the needs of the voters. Does this give us the best democratic outcomes?

We can do better. It’s important to remember that bipartisan balance is not the same as competitive democracy. The 50-50 party-dominated system is prone to brokered results that favor both political parties and reduce competition. Here’s how Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt describes this system, even when the chair does have a vote: “If the two parties’ delegations decide that a bipartisan, sweetheart, pro-incumbent gerrymander is in their mutual best interests, then any effort by [a] tiebreaker to demand the creation of competitive districts will be futile.”

Washington recently may have experienced a bit of bipartisan, sweetheart gerrymandering. We have 10 congressional districts. The six districts centered on the Puget Sound corridor are packed with Democratic voters. In the 2018 election, the votes for the Democratic candidate ranged from 59% to 100% — not particularly competitive. In contrast, the Central Washington district is solidly Republican, with 63% of the vote for the GOP in 2018. Same with the Eastern Washington district including Spokane, which gave 55% of the vote to the Republican candidate in 2018. That’s not exactly a landslide, but victory is pretty far off for the Democrats.

Only two districts are truly competitive “swing” districts, and they appear to have been set up that way: District 3 in southwest Washington, and District 8, which straddles the Cascades, including portions of Pierce, King, Chelan and Kittitas counties. Both districts are seeing competitive races this year.

The commission members for the last redistricting plan, approved Jan. 1, 2012, were the late Slade Gorton and the late Tom Huff, Republicans, and Tim Ceis and Dean Foster, Democrats. All four were experienced, intelligent party stalwarts. And there is definitely a logic to how they drew Washington’s congressional districts. Except for District 8, the districts make geographic sense, are relatively compact and mostly hold communities together. They were agreed on by the party representatives after some intense horse trading, in which each side tried to maximize its electoral edge over the other.

But the Puget Sound districts are “too Democratic” in that the Democrats have more voters there than they need to win, and the Central and Eastern Washington districts are arguably “too Republican.” Indeed, if there were a logical way to spread the Democratic voters more evenly (which is easier said than done), the Democrats might pick up a seat, and the overall distribution of districts between the parties would more closely reflect the total votes for each party statewide. This is particularly true at the state legislative district level, where at least one commentator thinks the Republican commission members outfoxed their colleagues the last time, resulting in more Republican districts than might be fair.

Earlier this year the legislature considered House Bill 2575, a bill to tweak Washington’s redistricting process by increasing transparency and requiring our commission to hold citizen forums around the state. HB 2575 passed the House but died in the state Senate. Even if it had passed, any real adjustment to our system would require a constitutional amendment and a change in the selection of commissioners or the power of their votes.

Fifteen states have some type of commission system, and many of them reflect a two-party arrangement like Washington’s. Yet some states are seeking a better way to divvy up political power in their state. The states with systems that aren’t dominated by the parties have rather complex mechanisms for appointing commission members. The California Citizens Redistricting Commission, for example, has five Democrats, five Republicans and four from neither party. These commissioners are picked from the general public after a remarkably long and complex selection process. Studies suggest that the combination of California’s citizen commission plus a “top-two” primary has resulted in an increase in competitive districts. But it’s too complicated. Colorado and Michigan voters approved similar systems in 2018. These new commissions may work well, but it’s worth watching their effectiveness in redistricting after this year’s census.

Missouri’s 2018 reform might be the simplest: It requires the appointment of a professional “nonpartisan state demographer” who listens to the proposals from political parties and other interests and then makes the final decisions based on set criteria. Other countries, like Canada and Australia, have for years used truly independent commissions staffed by nonpartisan professionals. This results in competitive districts and, importantly, increases public confidence in the fairness of the system. (Interestingly, Missouri’s Republican-controlled Legislature has asked voters to approve further revisions that would backtrack on the 2018 reforms.)

How should we redo Washington state’s party-dominated redistricting commission? A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature and statewide voter approval. Our current system likely passed the Legislature in 1983 because it established a system jointly controlled by the parties. Today, the voters might readily support a fully independent reapportionment mechanism, but our legislators would do so only if there were huge public pressure for change. This is possible. In 1911 the Washington state legislature had to be dragged kicking and screaming to put the initiative and referendum before the voters. But they did it.

The best solution here is probably one like Missouri’s. It’s simple: a professional, independent state demographer could be appointed by a panel of retired judges, and that expert could redesign the districts according to prescribed criteria. The parties would make their pitches to the demographer, but that person would have the last word. No muss, no fuss and a minimum of politics.

Read more in our series on democracy in Washington state

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About the Authors & Contributors

Hugh Spitzer

Hugh Spitzer

Professor Hugh Spitzer teaches both federal and state constitutional law at the University of Washington School of Law.