Legislative fixes often track with the law of unintended consequences. Inspired ideas don’t always align with human behavior as insiders game the system. In the case of the Washington State Redistricting Commission, a product of Everett agitators three decades ago, the fix may again need to be tweaked.
After the 1980 census, lawmakers drew lines on the political map, carving out a new 8th Congressional District and, in the process, lumping Everett with Seattle. For decades, Everett had been the 2nd Congressional district’s community of interest, the political center of gravity. With the likelihood of Seattle playing the hectoring older brother, Everett-ites initiated a lawsuit. The battle gave birth to a bipartisan commission that would de-politicize an inherently political exercise.
Oh, if only it were so.
Peter Callaghan, a former Herald scribe and Tacoma News Tribune columnist, illuminated the Commission’s state-of-nature politics, documenting a slew of emails and other communications between commissioners, commission staff, party honchos, and incumbent politicos fearful of getting challenged. (http://www.thenewstribune.com/2012/08/19/2260848/redistricting-shows-how-far-incumbents.html) While unsavory, heavy-handed messages and arm twisting are an accepted practice and perfectly legal. It’s why the Redistricting Commission has become a catalyst for protecting incumbents, and Washington’s political class (read: both Democrats and Republicans) are just fine with that.
As Callaghan writes, “the emails show that partisan advantage wasn’t just one of the criteria used to draw new legislative and congressional lines. It was the dominant factor. While it is illegal to use public resources for campaign purposes, the once-a-decade redistricting process seems exempt from those laws.”
The surprise here is there is no surprise. The Commission is an equal balance of super-smart (and, yes, ethical) partisan bulldogs who battle and horse trade until a plan is hammered out. Dick Morrill, a retired University of Washington geography professor who has studied the redistricting process for decades, was satisfied with the results. Writing in Crosscut earlier this year, Morrill noted, “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 plan as A-minus within those constraints.” (http://crosscut.com/2012/01/06/washington/21761/Why-states-redistricting-plan-counts-as-success/)
Sunshine and transparency won’t unscramble the incumbent-protection status quo. It will require systemic change. Reformers might look to the Hawkeye state for a solution. The Iowa Legislative Service Agency draws political lines using computer software, with population the only criterion. It’s not wholly removed from politics since the governor and general assembly must give the OK, but it comes close. It’s a model that merits serious consideration.
Elected office, like the mafia, can be tough to enter but easy to stay put (politics is inscrutable for a reason.) The Washington Redistricting Commission fulfilled its legal mandate, and now good-government advocates can revisit (and hopefully address) its incumbent-preserving bent. We have until 2020 to figure out a redistricting approach that puts Washington voters, not career politicians, first.