This editorial was published by The Columbian of Vancouver, Wash.
What should we make of the Washington State Redistricting Commission and its failure to produce new legislative maps for state and U.S. House seats by its deadline of 11:59 p.m. Nov. 15?
Our initial reaction is one of disappointment. Washington’s once-a-decade redistricting process has been justifiably held as an enviable standard, since new maps are created by a bipartisan panel and not the Legislature, largely eliminating the ugly, divisive gerrymandering too often seen elsewhere. As we’ve previously noted editorially, the system is imperfect, yet it is superior to that of most states.
But this is the first time since its creation in 1990 that the commission has been unable to produce maps on time. Panel members blamed their failure on the late release of census data and technical problems. While those are legitimate factors, some suspect our current age’s intractable partisanship also played a role.
The panel has four voting commissioners, two Democrats and two Republicans. The Democrats reportedly went into the process with a goal of creating a Latino-majority district in central Washington. They maintain, according to The Seattle Times, that a legal analysis said creation of such a district is required under federal voting-rights law. The Seattle Times added that Republicans were “looking to create advantages to chip away at the Democratic majorities in the Legislature.”
Or as Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, told The Columbian’s Shari Phiel, “I think it’s gotten really hard for bipartisan agreements on anything to get done.”
It would be beneficial to lawmakers and residents alike to have a more clear understanding of why the commission couldn’t complete its task on time. But much of the panel’s final deliberations were conducted in private, a situation open-government advocates say violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.
“It clearly seems as if this was a deliberate attempt to essentially hide the discussions from the public,” Mike Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, told the Seattle Times.
Still, the panel does deserve credit for extensive outreach during the information-gathering phase of the process. According to a news release from commission Chairwoman Sarah Augustine, the panel held 17 public outreach meetings and 22 business meetings, heard live testimony from more than 400 residents, received more than 2,750 comments on draft maps or old maps, while more than 3,000 residents commented via email, website form, letter or voicemail. In addition, Augustine noted, “utilizing a mapping tool made available to the public on the Commission’s website, 1,300 maps were created, of which 12 were formally submitted as third-party maps.”
So now the responsibility of drawing new legislative and congressional maps falls to the state Supreme Court. It should be noted legislative leaders from both parties have urged the court to consider the maps agreed upon by the panel. In her news release, Augustine says the commission reached consensus on a mapping plan and urges the Supreme Court to use it.
“It would be a shame to see these maps go unconsidered simply because the clock struck 12,” she said.
We suspect the issue went beyond the clock striking 12. Regardless, we have faith the state Supreme Court will ably finish what the redistricting commission could not.