by Ben Adlin
Washington’s redistricting process has entered uncharted territory following a State commission’s failure to approve an updated plan before its final deadline on Monday, Nov. 15. The task of deciding political boundaries for the next decade now falls to the State Supreme Court.
It’s the first time ever under the State’s redistricting process that the role will be played by justices, who have until April 30 of next year to adopt a new plan. Normally, the boundaries are set by the Legislature.
How the lines are drawn determines who votes in a given district, which in turn influences which candidates are elected, how public money is spent, and what laws are made.
Equity advocates who called on the commission to better represent BIPOC communities — particularly those in South King County and the Yakima Valley — now say they’ll take their fight to the court.
“Our goal remains the same: draw fair maps for Communities of Color, while engaging the community in the process,” Andrew Hong, colead of Redistricting Justice for Washington (RJW), a coalition of more than two dozen community groups and nonprofits, said in a statement on Tuesday, Nov. 16.
While People of Color make up about 35% of the State’s population, only one of the State’s 49 legislative districts — the 37th, which includes much of southeast Seattle, from the Central Area to Renton — currently has an eligible voting population that’s majority People of Color. It’s a similar story among U.S. House districts in the state: Only voters in the 9th District, which overlies much of South Seattle as well as southern Bellevue and all of Mercer Island, are majority People of Color.
Under Washington’s redistricting process, the commission was supposed to approve a final plan by Monday, which would go on to be amended and adopted by the State Legislature. But on Tuesday, the commission chair admitted members “were unable to adopt a districting plan by the midnight deadline.” By law, that sends the issue to the Supreme Court, which will set the boundaries without lawmaker approval.
The announcement was a shock to many, as it initially appeared that the commission had indeed approved its plan on Monday night. The commission later issued an explanation saying that while members had approved redistricting maps before midnight, they failed to adopt a complete plan before the deadline.
Critics said Monday’s committee proceedings, which included hours of discussions behind closed doors, may have violated laws on public meetings. Crosscut reported Tuesday that Michelle Earl-Hubbard, vice president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said in an email that commissioners’ arrival and immediate action at the end of the meeting, with no public discussion, suggested they may have held an illegal meeting out of public view.
Later Tuesday, the commission went ahead and published its proposed boundaries for the state’s 10 U.S. House districts and 49 state legislative districts, although the State Supreme Court has no obligation to follow them. The maps generally do not reflect proposed changes from RJW.
Among other changes, the coalition had proposed a handful of updates to legislative and congressional districts in the South End. The group’s plan for the 9th Congressional District, which stretches from Tacoma to Bellevue, would cut Bellevue and Mercer Island out of the district and instead add parts of Aurburn, Burien, and White Center.
Advocates also want to consolidate Communities of Color in a half-dozen state legislative districts in south King County — 11, 30, 33, 34, 37, and 47. The changes would mean four of those legislative districts would have adult populations that were majority People of Color. In three, People of Color would also make up a majority of eligible voters.
The epicenter for RJW’s efforts is in the Yakima Valley, where electoral districts have historically disadvantaged the area’s large Latino/a and Indigenous populations. The group’s proposal would establish a majority-Latino/a district and combine areas of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Nation.
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay told the Emerald on Tuesday that he’s “hopeful that the Washington State Supreme Court will honor its obligations to keep communities of interest together and ensure every community has a represented voice.”
“This is an unprecedented moment in Washington State’s history,” Zahilay said, “but it could also be a huge opportunity for a non-partisan body to create districts which are responsive to the needs of our democracy and will empower marginalized communities to have meaningful influence in federal and state governance.”
Though Supreme Court justices do have ideological leanings, technically the positions are nonpartisan. By contrast, the State redistricting commission was bipartisan, consisting of two members picked by Democratic lawmakers and two picked by Republicans.
Much about how the Supreme Court process will unfold over the coming months remains unknown. “We don’t have a lot of information at this point, as you might expect,” a member of the court’s communications office wrote in an email to the Emerald.
The court issued the following statement on Tuesday amid ongoing confusion over whether members of the redistricting commission had indeed missed its deadline the night before:
“The Supreme Court is awaiting further information on the activities of the Redistricting Commission. If it is confirmed that the Commission missed the Nov. 15th deadline, RCW 44.05.100 (4) states that the Supreme Court shall adopt a plan by April 30, 2022. The court will await filings from the parties.
“If the deadline was missed, the Supreme Court will create a plan and process for the justices’ consideration. We will keep you updated as details emerge.”
In response to follow-up questions from the Emerald about opportunities for public participation in the process and what “parties” will be able to submit filings as part of the proceedings, the communications staffer said those questions did not yet have answers.
RJW had initially planned an online meeting Tuesday evening to discuss the situation, but the group ended up postponing the event until more information becomes available. In a separate press release, members said they’re disappointed in the commission’s failure to adopt a redistricting plan on time and its general lack of transparency around the process.
“Over the past several months,” said Joseph Lachman, a policy analyst at the South Seattle-based Asian Counseling and Referral Services, “members of communities of interest have shown up consistently to engage with the redistricting process to ensure that Communities of Color have the resources and political power they deserve in this process. However, we have not felt that our communities’ needs have been listened to or met.”
“After spending months advocating at multiple public comment meetings, it’s quite upsetting that not only did the commission propose maps that were inequitable by excluding prominent Communities of Color from the 9th [Congressional District], they also were not able to fulfill their duty of delivering maps by the deadline,” added Nirae Petty, advocacy organizer at the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. “Leaving the districting task to the Supreme Court defeats the purpose of having a local districting commission to ensure that the process is more personal to the residents who live in these districts.”
The commission received more than 2,750 comments on the map proposals and heard public testimony from more than 400 state residents, according to Sarah Augustine, chair of the redistricting commission. The body also held 17 public outreach meetings and 22 business meetings.
“The Commission hopes the Washington Supreme Court will be able to take advantage of the public input accumulated over the past 10 months,” Augustine wrote. “The commissioners have every faith that the Court will draw maps that are fair and worthy of the people of Washington.”
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.
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