Maps showing current districts alongside Redistricting Justice for Washington's proposed redistricting. Image courtesy of RJW.

Redistricting Is an Opportunity to Build BIPOC Voting Power, Organizers Say

by Ben Adlin

Every 10 years, officials undertake a great political balancing act that profoundly — but almost invisibly — determines the value of your voice in democracy. By redrawing voting districts at the state and local levels, they set boundaries that will influence elections for the next decade.

The process, known as redistricting, is fundamental to the idea of representation in politics. How lines are drawn determines who votes in a given district, which in turn determines which candidates get elected, what laws are passed, and how public money is spent.

Despite how consequential district boundaries can be, redistricting for most people happens in the background. The mayor might be a topic of lunchtime conversation, but the border between the state’s 33rd and 34th Legislative Districts? Unlikely.

“Redistricting is so weird because it happens once every 10 years and then it kind of just disappears,” said Nirae Petty, an advocacy organizer at the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. “You won’t ever hear, walking down the road, like, ‘I hate how these district lines are drawn!’”

Petty has spent the past several months working to engage Black and other marginalized communities in and around South Seattle in the redistricting process, which began earlier this year and is now entering home stretch: Updated district maps are due from both Washington State and Seattle City redistricting commissions by Nov. 15, while King County’s plan must be submitted by the end of the year.

Equity advocates see redistricting as a once-in-a-decade opportunity to empower BIPOC communities by redrawing lines that unite rather than divide minority populations. “That’s what I wanted to stress to my community, is how it can relate to you,” said Petty, who was born and raised in Seattle and began interning with the Urban League while a student at Rainier Beach High School.

“We always talk about how Seattle is so diverse, it’s so liberal, it’s so inclusive,” she said, “but when you look at the representatives, or at King County for instance, there’s not as much BIPOC representation.”

Like many esoteric government processes, redistricting and its bedfellow, gerrymandering — the practice of manipulating districts to favor a particular party or group — have been widely used to quiet minority communities, such as by splitting them between districts and diluting their votes. In North Carolina, for example, new district maps proposed by Republicans would divide Charlotte, home of the state’s largest African American population, into three or four separate U.S. House districts.  

Here in Washington, meanwhile, preliminary maps submitted last month by the Washington State Redistricting Commission have run into criticism of their own. An analysis by UCLA’s Voting Rights Project found that each of the four maps proposed by members of the bipartisan commission would risk violating the federal Voting Rights Act by failing to adequately represent Latina and Latino voters in the Yakima Valley, Crosscut reported last week. 

Maps showing current districts alongside Redistricting Justice for Washington's proposed redistricting. Image courtesy of RJW.
Maps showing current 9th Congressional District lines alongside Redistricting Justice for Washington’s proposed redistricting. Image courtesy of RJW.

Civil rights groups see the setback as an opportunity. The organization Redistricting Justice for Washington (RJW), which consists of more than two dozen community groups and nonprofits, wants the commission to draw more districts where People of Color make up a majority of eligible voters. South King County and Yakima are among the group’s key focus areas.

“We see that Washington State is roughly 35% People of Color,” said Andrew Hong, the group’s codirector, who grew up in Columbia City and now attends Stanford University. “So by proportionality, 35% of state legislators and congresspeople should be elected by Communities of Color.”

As it stands, however, only one of the state’s current 49 legislative districts — the 37th, which includes much of southeast Seattle, from the Central Area to Renton — has an eligible voting population that’s majority People of Color. 

When analyzing districts, Hong uses a measure called citizen voting age population, or CVAP, which looks at the demographics of eligible voters rather than the overall population. “We want to maximize the number of those majority-minority CVAP districts across the state,” he said. 

The idea is to work toward maps where 35% of districts are majority-minority by eligible voting population, though Hong admits that’s unlikely anytime soon. Still, he said, the goal is fairer than a situation in which People of Color make up just 35% of each individual district and are unable to elect candidates who represent them.

“Before you even go into the voting booth, you’re drawn into districts,” he said. “That determines the playing field that elections take place in. And so we want to make sure that districts are drawn to represent people and communities, and not parties and politicians or special interests.”

While South Seattle and South King County are top focus areas for RJW, Yakima Valley is the current epicenter for redistricting. Electoral districts in the region have historically disadvantaged the area’s large Latino and Indigenous populations, and results of the 2020 Census show that three overlying counties are now majority Latino. Yet none of the state commission’s proposed maps would create a state legislative district where a majority of U.S. citizens over 18 are Latino/a.

“The commission has this historic opportunity to create a district in the Yakima Valley to allow for the Latinx community to elect someone,” said Margot Spindola, who coleads RJW and also works as the Puget Sound community organizer for the Latino Community Fund of Washington

RJW’s proposal for the area would not only establish a majority-Latino/a district, it would also combine areas of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Nation “because they’re seen as a cohesive political group,” Spindola said. “Because Yakima has historically been the home of so many voting rights violations, we must make it a top priority.”

In the South End, RJW is proposing a handful of updates to both state legislative and U.S. House districts. The group is asking supporters to show support by signing petitions in favor of the proposals.

On the congressional side, the coalition is proposing adjustments to the borders of the 9th Congressional District, which currently stretches from Tacoma northeast to Bellevue. It’s the only one of the state’s 10 congressional districts that’s majority People of Color.

RJW’s proposed 9th District would cut Bellevue and Mercer Island out of the district and instead add parts of Auburn, Burien, and White Center. The group says the changes would increase the proportion of eligible voters who are People of Color by 2% and better represent working-class people.

“The 9th is home to 4 of the 18 most diverse zip codes in America and some of the poorest cities in King County,” Hong wrote in The Stranger this summer, “meaning our interests are different from some of the wealthier communities east of Lake Washington.”

Maps showing current King County Legislative districts alongside Redistricting Justice for Washington’s proposed redistricting. Image courtesy of RJW.

RJW is also proposing a shake-up of a half-dozen state legislative districts in south King County — districts 11, 30, 33, 34, 37, and 47. Currently the 37th is the only district in the state where a majority of eligible voters are People of Color.

The changes would consolidate Communities of Color so that four of the legislative districts would have adult populations that were majority People of Color. In three of those, People of Color would also make up a majority of eligible voters. The adjustments also include the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe with other Communities of Color “so Muckleshoot citizens can vote with other diverse communities with more shared interests,” the proposal says.

“The work that RJW is doing is trying to expand what we have in the 37th District to the 11th, to the 33rd, to Yakima, to Tacoma, so we can build out a stronger coalition of representatives that represent Communities of Color,” Hong told the Emerald.

While nearly all the group’s focus has been on state-level redistricting, individual members have also worked with local redistricting commissions as they redraw county- and city-level district maps. Spindola, in her role at the Latino Community Fund, held listening sessions alongside the King County Districting Committee as part of the redistricting process.

“We at Latino Community Fund are trying to build an inclusive, multiracial democracy with partners,” Spindola said, “so we wanted to hold this listening session to better understand, like, how we can preserve majority-minority districts and making sure that we’re not cracking Latino districts.”

Specifically, she noted the importance of keeping together large Latino communities in areas like Tukwila, South Park, and Boulevard Park. “Especially when you’re looking at the Council,” she said, “you have white representatives representing districts that have a very large percentage of People of Color.”

Of particular concern, Spindola said, is preserving and expanding District 5, a majority-minority district that includes Des Moines, Normandy Park, and portions of Burien, SeaTac, Tukwila, Renton, and Kent. She also pointed to District 2, which “splits Beacon Hill down the middle. We have to consider the communities there,” she said. 

Petty, the Urban League organizer who’s been working to educate communities and get them involved in redistricting, says the work hasn’t always been easy. When she tried to arrange her own listening session with county officials and community members, nobody from the community showed up — something she attributed to simply being unfamiliar with the process.

So she refocused her effort on education, going to South End high schools and talking to community groups about what redistricting means and why it matters. ”Instead of me just going on the front lines and advocating for, like, BIPOC representation through redistricting, how about I do information sessions and teach people instead of having people blindly support something they have no idea about.”

A recent college graduate herself, Petty said she feels that younger generations, and especially People of Color, are fed up with the system’s failure to represent them.

“We need to prioritize people interests over politician interests, because when gerrymandering happens, communities whose voices have really never been heard are even more suppressed,” Petty said. “And so when we’re finally able to elect representatives that have the same interests as us, or that actually hears us out and is doing something about it rather than just saying they’re going to do it, I feel like that’s when we’ll start to see the change that we want.”

Are you registered to vote? It’s too late to register by mail and online, but you can still register and get a ballot through Election Day, Nov. 2, by visiting the King County Elections Center, 919 SW Grady Way in Renton, or a variety of voting centers in the county.

Who can register to vote in Washington? Simple, you must be:

  • A citizen of the United States.
  • A legal resident of Washington State.
  • At least 18 years old by election day.
  • Not disqualified from voting due to a court order.
  • Not under Department of Corrections supervision for a Washington felony conviction.

Read more about who can vote.

This article is funded in part by a Voter Education Fund grant from King County Elections and the Seattle Foundation.

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: Map graphic courtesy of Redistricting Justice for Washington.

Before you move on to the next story …

The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.

If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.

We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!