Comment: Public-centered process needed for political borders

Partisan influence affected the state’s legislative redistricting process, forcing late and disruptive changes.

By Karen Crowley / For The Herald

It’s 2024. Do you know your voting district? Check again.

Washington state has a new legislative map. The new map changes 13 legislative districts with the most significant changes to Legislative Districts 14 and 15 in south central Washington. The Washigton Office of the Secretary of State has confirmed that these lines will displace five sitting legislators. An analysis by The League of Women Voters of Washington shows that nearly 500,000 voters are affected by the changes.

How did we get here?

These changes are the result of a lawsuit that successfully challenged the 2021 maps as being in violation of Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. The U.S. District Court ruled that the 15th district’s borders in Yakima were discriminatory toward Latino voters, forcing the redrawing of legislative districts in central Washington. A newly drawn 14th district satisfies the court’s requirement that Latino voters have a good chance to elect the candidates of their choice. But creating this district caused a ripple effect, as the changes swirled through surrounding districts to balance population numbers.

This lawsuit was one of several that challenged the work of the 2021 state Redistricting Commission. The commission failed to meet its deadline, shifting the responsibility for drawing maps to the court. Moreover, commissioners were fined for violations of Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act.

This is not good governance.

The current Washington State Redistricting Commission is often described as independent. It is not. While it is true that commissioners are not elected officials and are not part of the Legislature, the commission is not free from partisan influence. Commissioners are put in place by the two dominant parties, with work facilitated by a non-voting chair. Records from 2021 tell us that Washington state legislators and their staff members were in regular contact with commissioners, essentially lobbying for partisan interests. There was no public view into these discussions or deliberations. We do not know what criteria were used to draw the lines. We do know that the commissioners worked in pairs, ultimately voting on maps they had not yet created, and the public had not seen.

The bottom line is this: An ineffective and opaque redistricting process resulted in maps that have been successfully challenged in court as not representative of the people they are designed to serve.

There is a better way.

The League of Women of Washington has been a leader in redistricting, working for improved processes for more than 60 years. In 2017, the Washington League released a Report on Redistricting that concluded there is a need to “move from the state’s bipartisan system to a more nearly nonpartisan, independent System.” Following the failed 2021 redistricting process, Washington League members passed a resolution supporting a redistricting reform campaign.

The League is calling for a new type of redistricting commission; a People First Commission, with expanded representation beyond the current two-party structure. Polls taken over the last decade show that about 40 percent of Washington state voters identify as independent of the two major parties. Creating a commission that includes a broad selection of residents would minimize partisan influence. Let’s add to that a defined and ranked list of map-drawing criteria, adequate resources and heightened transparency requirements. The result will be a better process, better governance, and maps that work for all of us.

Recent research from the University of Southern California tells us that truly independent citizen redistricting commissions have higher public trust and have resulted in legislatures that are more representative of the people in their state. This Fair Maps Report concludes: “The result is a process that empowers communities and reduces the influence of political actors.”

If you agree that change is needed, reach out to your local League. The Snohomish County League has created a Local Action Team and invites allies and partners to join the campaign. See for more information.

Karen Crowley is president of the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County. The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan political organization. It encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government. The League acts in support of, or in opposition to, selected governmental issues that its members have studied. It does not support or oppose candidates or political parties.

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