WA’s new political maps are a mystery after last redistribution meeting

The committee’s four voting members had until the end of Monday to approve the new maps of parliamentary and legislative districts and send them to the state legislature.

But it was not immediately clear whether the commission had completed its work or not. Both Democrats and Republicans appeared to approve new cards with seconds until midnight, but it also appeared that they did not vote to pass them until after the midnight deadline.

Then the committee immediately adjourned, without making the maps public – and without discussing whether the members had successfully completed their work.

The four commissioners had spent most of the evening discussing issues in private, in what their staff said were groups of two. The state’s Open Public Meetings Act requires the redistribution commission to meet and make decisions in public, but the commissioners had virtually no public deliberation before their vote late Monday night.

If the commission did not complete the final maps and send them to the legislature as required by law, it would mean that the state Supreme Court could be tasked with drawing new district maps – giving the judiciary control over the decisions that will shape politics for the next decade. This is something that has never happened under the state’s current redistribution system, which Washington voters approved almost four decades ago.

In the dying minutes of their late-night meeting on Monday, the commissioners made minimal comments on a handful of district boundaries that were still evolving.

Yet, in recent weeks, one of the biggest disagreements has concerned the creation of a legislative district in the Yakima Valley where most eligible voters are Latinos.

The two Democrat-appointed commissioners Brady Walkinshaw and April Sims had said failure to create a Latin American majority constituency in the region risked violating federal voting rights law. This reflects the conclusion drawn by UCLA professor Matt Barreto, an expert on Latin American voting patterns that Democrats paid to analyze several card proposals.

The two Republicans on the commission, Joe Fain and Paul Graves, had argued that creating a district based primarily on the race and ethnicity of voters would result in racial gerrymandering, while harming GOP incumbents in an area. where Republicans have long dominated state legislative elections. The Republican commissioners have obtained their own legal analysis that strengthens this argument.

Redistribution is the once-per-decade process where political districts are redrawn to ensure that each district has an approximately equal number of people, using the latest US Census data. How these lines are drawn affects who people can vote for, who can run for office, and which party has political advantage in a given constituency.

In most states, redistribution is left in the hands of the Legislature, giving the party that controls the state Capitol the ability to skew the cards in its party’s favor.

But in 1983, Washington voters approved the creation of a bipartisan redistribution commission, in an effort to bring greater fairness to the process.

This year marks only the fourth time that the state’s bipartisan Redistribution Commission has met. Each time before, a majority of the committee’s four voting members had settled on a set of cards, avoiding intervention by the state Supreme Court.

Meetings in groups of two technically cannot constitute a secret meeting under the state’s open public meetings law, as a quorum would require three commissioners. But “this is probably a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the law,” said Mike Fancher, chairman of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Under the State’s Open Public Meetings Act, members of voting bodies can only withdraw in private session for specific reasons, such as to discuss pending litigation, real estate agreements or matters of governance. staff. The committee did not provide any of these reasons before members stepped down to discuss the issues in private.

Jamie Nixon, spokesperson for the State Redistribution Commission, said the commission had not held a closed-door meeting because the commissioners met in “caucus dyads” rather than as a whole body. . (The state’s open meeting law makes no mention of “caucus dyads.”)

Regardless, in the end, the public couldn’t see the commissioners discussing the details of the cut-up plans or their process for making a decision.

Sarah Augustine, the committee’s non-voting chair, said documents approved by the committee in its rush to meet its deadline will most likely be uploaded on Tuesday morning, but it’s unclear when exactly.

“Due to the late approval time for the documents required to meet the legal deadline, the Commission does not know when / if the cards will be made available to the public,” wrote Nixon, spokesperson for the commission. , in an email.

“We will further educate the public if the circumstances warrant,” Nixon added.

For those who have followed the process closely, it may not come as a surprise that the redistribution decisions have fallen on edge. For several months, the members of the cutting commission have expressed somewhat different priorities when it comes to redrawing the political lines of the state.

Republicans appointed to the committee, Fain and Graves, had said they wanted to create more districts that were competitive swing districts, as opposed to secure seats for Republicans or Democrats.

Members of the Democratic commission, meanwhile, said their main focus is on empowering communities of color and ensuring that those communities are not divided between districts, diluting their voting power.

While the four commissioners said they wanted to create more so-called “majority-minority” neighborhoods, where people of color make up the majority of the population, they did not always agree on how to measure this.

In particular, they were divided over whether they should focus on creating districts where people of color make up the majority of citizens of voting age, or just the majority of the overall population, to include those of color. children and non-citizens who cannot vote.

This disagreement has surfaced in recent weeks, as commissioners questioned how to create new legislative districts in the Yakima Valley, a strongly Latin region, Barreto, the UCLA professor, said that to ensure compliance with the Federal Law on Voting Rights, the commission should create a predominantly Latino district by the population of voting age, and not just by the total population.

The Republicans-commissioned legal analysis argued otherwise, arguing that building a single-racial and ethnic-focused neighborhood risks violating the Equal Protection Act of the U.S. Constitution.

If the commission has successfully sent its plans to the Legislature, the cards are unlikely to change much. State law only allows the legislature to make minor changes affecting up to 2% of a district’s population – and that requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature, which is a high bar to meet.

If the commission missed its deadline, the state’s Supreme Court would be tasked with drawing up new maps, a process it must complete by the end of April 2022.

Yurij Rudensky, the democracy agenda redistribution lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City, said it was not uncommon for courts to finalize redistribution plans. This happens quite frequently when state legislatures fail to agree on new district lines, or sometimes when commissions like Washington’s do not meet their deadlines, he said.

He said courts often draw fairer maps than state legislatures, both from a racial and partisan perspective. “Some of the abuses that occur in redistribution are just less likely to arise when justice kicks in,” Rudensky said.

But, he added, the bipartisan Washington state commission generally does “a decent job”, although it is “completely political.”

Rudensky said it was fair to assume that the state’s high court would work hard to ensure its cards comply with legal requirements, including federal voting rights law.

“I generally think the courts try to make right by law,” he said.

Whatever district maps the court draws, they would be final, with no possibility for the legislature to make changes.

This story has been updated to include more detailed information about past redistribution processes.


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