Critics call for reform of WA redistricting process after commission failure

The bipartisan panel's secretive negotiations and ultimate failure to approve new political maps has some questioning the process.

Trees flank a view of the Washington State Capitol, with blue sky behind the building and its dome

A person walks near the Legislative Building, April 21, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia. Washington's Redistricting Commission failed to meet its deadline and on Nov. 16 kicked the job of creating new political maps to the state Supreme Court. The bipartisan commission missed a deadline to approve new boundaries for congressional and legislative districts following the 2020 census. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

As Washington state’s bipartisan Redistricting Commission collapsed in failure last week, at least two problems became clear. 

One was that, for the first time in state history, the commission hadn’t met its deadline for approving new congressional and legislative maps, leaving the state’s political future in the hands of the state Supreme Court.

The other was that, in the commission’s mad rush to the finish, no one watching had any idea why the historic breakdown happened. 

Now, legislators and other observers are talking about ways to prevent a repeat of last week’s spectacle — from enacting new transparency reforms to overhauling the state’s redistricting system more dramatically. 

"I had this just dreadful feeling, when I watched that last hurried vote that was happening right around midnight, that it was the crumbling of the rule of law,” said state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who chairs the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee. 

Pedersen was referring to how the commission’s four voting members, in the final seconds of their meeting Nov. 15, voted to approve a deal that they hadn’t explained to the public — one that multiple commissioners said wasn’t even captured in writing. The state Open Public Meetings Act requires the commission to debate and make its decisions in public.

The confusion over what exactly the commissioners were voting on — and whether they illegally made decisions in private after their midnight deadline — makes Pedersen think the state’s redistricting statute needs to be amended to make it more clear what exactly constitutes a finished “redistricting plan.”

He said past redistricting commissions had approved full redistricting maps, along with detailed written descriptions of the new congressional and legislative district boundaries, before their deadlines. “What we have taken for granted before in previous processes, we evidently cannot take for granted anymore,” Pedersen said Monday.

Other legislators — and even some of this year’s redistricting commissioners — said they would support having the Legislature enact a new rule requiring final redistricting proposals to be shared publicly for a day or two in advance of the commission’s final deadline. 

“The final agreement needs to sit in public view, then they vote,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane. He said members of his caucus plan to introduce a bill during the upcoming legislative session that would mandate that change, while “the lessons learned are fresh on our minds.” The Legislature’s new session begins Jan. 10.

The redistricting process happens once a decade, following the release of new U.S. census data. The goal is to redraw political districts so they are roughly equal in population. 

But the process also determines which political party has an advantage in a given district, as well as whether certain communities will be split between districts, diluting their voting power. It also decides who is eligible to run for legislative offices and who people can vote for.

Washington’s bipartisan commission has long been regarded as one of the country’s better redistricting processes — more fair than leaving political district decisions to the state Legislature, where the party in control can skew maps in its favor.

Yet, after the events of last week, some wonder if a more drastic change to the commission is in order.

Alison McCaffree, redistricting chair with the League of Women Voters of Washington, said in an ideal world, the commission should be restructured to remove some of the politics from the process.

“In my personal opinion, you need citizen representatives, not political operatives,” McCaffree said. 

She said the independent citizen commissions in Michigan and California “are the most advanced we’ve seen” in terms of having truly independent redistricting processes. Michigan’s 13-member citizen commission is made up of four registered voters who identify as Democrats, four voters who identify as Republicans, and five unaffiliated voters. California’s citizen commission similarly includes five Republicans, five Democrats and four politically unaffiliated members.

By contrast, here in Washington, the four political caucuses of the Legislature each appoint a member to the bipartisan commission, creating a panel of two Democrats and two Republicans who make the decisions. 

Others say it’s too early to throw out Washington’s bipartisan commission structure, particularly since this year’s commission was under different constraints than the past three. Delays in the release of 2020 census data got the commission off to a later start; plus the commission had an earlier deadline than ever before — Nov. 15 instead of Jan. 1. Washington voters approved the earlier deadline in 2016, partly to avoid redistricting negotiations and public input occurring over the holidays.

April Sims, one of this year’s Democratic redistricting commissioners, said she still thinks the state’s bipartisan process has merit — although she regrets the lack of public transparency at the commission's final meeting. The commission met online for about five hours, but most of that meeting was held in so-called caucuses, out of public view, even though Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act does not include such an exemption for this panel.

“I just think there is something really powerful about forcing folks who normally wouldn't come together to come together,” Sims said last week. “It means everyone has to give a little in the process and no one side wins. And I think that’s good for democracy and good for the public.”

Chad Dunn, legal director of the UCLA Voting Rights Project, said bipartisan negotiations may be good for political parties, but they’re not always good for everyone — including voters of color. His organization has criticized the Washington commission’s proposed map as potentially violating the federal Voting Rights Act in Central Washington, which is heavily Latino.

“I can say that it is often the case that when political actors get together and try to make a deal based on politics, then racial minority voters often lose out,” Dunn said. “And that’s been true in this country for decades.”

Phil Talmadge, who sponsored the original constitutional amendment creating Washington’s redistricting commission, said Washington’s system remains a good one that usually produces “reasonably fair” maps.

Talmadge, a former Democratic legislator, said it would be hard to get two-thirds of lawmakers to approve a new, less partisan redistricting structure, as would be required to send a constitutional amendment to voters.

“There’s no way you are going to see the parties and the caucuses removed from the process in redistricting in a state like Washington — let’s be real,” said Talmadge, who also served as a state Supreme Court justice. 

Talmadge added that the state Supreme Court was designed as the nonpartisan backstop to intervene when the bipartisan commission cannot reach agreement — and that’s exactly what is happening this year.

Randy Pepple, a Republican political consultant, said he thinks the problem this year was that Democrats weren’t especially motivated to avoid passing the decisions on to the state Supreme Court. He said that’s because the court leans liberal and most of its members were originally appointed to their positions by Democratic governors.

Joe Fain, one of the Republican redistricting commissioners, said he personally trusts the Supreme Court justices will ultimately draw fair maps. Still, Fain said the process of kicking the maps to the court could be adjusted to help prevent any commission members from assuming they’ll get a better deal from the courts than from negotiating toward a deal.

His idea: In cases where redistricting breaks down, have the decision go to a panel of Superior Court judges, who would be drawn by lottery. That way, the redistricting commissioners would be more fearful of court intervention — and the uncertainty that comes with it, Fain said. 

Other changes could be made without a constitutional amendment. For instance, Billig said he would like lawmakers to adjust how long the Supreme Court can take to draw maps, instead of giving the justices until April 30. That date is only about three weeks before the deadline for candidates to file to run for office, which Billig said bumps up uncomfortably against the election cycle.

Derek Young, a Pierce County Council member who has publicly criticized the commission’s secretive operations, said something as simple as requiring open government training for commission members and staff might have helped them operate with more transparency.  

A proposal last year would have mandated such training, along with other reforms, such as requiring the commission to produce a final report explaining how it reached its decisions and what data it used. The 2020 Legislature didn’t pass that measure, which also would have appointed commission members earlier and allowed them to begin their work sooner.

State Treasurer Mike Pellicciotti, who sponsored that bill when he was a Democratic state legislator, said last week’s chaos shows why that was a missed opportunity.

“The result of this current process has set us back from being a leader nationally in the way we had been,” Pellicciotti said last week.

“There are still ways to make it right — and I hope the Legislature looks at ways to improve the process going forward,” he said.

About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is Crosscut’s staff reporter covering state politics and the Legislature.