Everybody wants to know exactly what the hell Washington's Redistricting Commissioners were doing between Monday afternoon and Tuesday evening, and "everybody" now includes the Washington State Supreme Court.
After the bipartisan commission failed to redraw the state's political boundaries by its midnight deadline on Monday, and after a couple days of vague statements and a press conference on Thursday afternoon, the Court ordered the committee's chair to provide "a detailed timeline" of what went down Monday and Tuesday, most likely because the duty of shaping the state's political future for the next decade now rests in its hands, and it wants to know just how verkakte the whole process was before embarking on its own.
The Court will have until April 30 of next year to accomplish the task, much to the chagrin of anyone who is trying to decide whether to run for office next year. (The filing deadline is mid-May.)
First failure in forty years
Every ten years state law requires a bipartisan Redistricting Commission to redraw the state's political boundaries based on new census data.
This bipartisan system emerged in the early 1980s after Republican King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer — then a Democrat in the state Senate — used his status as a moderate to milk the system for benefits, and then switched parties after leadership wouldn't give him "a state-financed mobile telephone in his automobile." Reichbauer's party swap was major, in that it gave Republicans total control of state government during a redistricting year. After a few decades of Democratic dominance, the GOP immediately turned around and used its power to draw wildly favorable districts for itself "with rough felt-pen district lines."
Battles ensued, the Legislature "grew weary of the constant battles" but continued battling anyway, the Court gave the Legislature a deadline to put some fucking lines on a fucking map, and then lawmakers finally passed a bill to create a bipartisan redistricting commission, which voters then approved in an initiative in 1983. The commission would be composed of four people selected by state legislative partisans and one non-voting chair selected by the four partisans.
That system "worked" — infamously via lots of insidery bullshit deals to install friends in high places — until this week.
How things fell apart
This year the commission included Washington State Labor Council secretary treasurer April Sims, Grist CEO and former Democratic House Rep. Brady Piñero Walkinshaw, Republican House Rep. Paul Graves, and Bellevue Chamber CEO and former GOP state Senator Joe Fain, who was accused of rape but denies the allegation. That group selected Sarah Augustine, the executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima and Kittitas Counties, to serve as the non-voting diplomat between the two sides.
At midnight in a virtual meeting on Monday, the commissioners voted to approve an “agreement" on the state's new political boundaries.
For reasons we'll discuss in a bit, no one except the commissioners could tell if that “agreement” was a map, a document full of numbers that could become a map, or a little prayer to Jesus. At a press conference on Thursday, Commissioner Graves said the "agreement" was a mix of emails containing prior agreements and last-minute verbal offers based on estimated partisan performance in certain swing districts. So the thing they all approved on Monday wasn't a document or a map, but rather emails and verbal handshakes.
When the commission voted to transmit a letter announcing that “agreement” to the Legislature, they appeared to experience some technical difficulties. Then the clock struck 12:01 am, and they blew the deadline.
Commissioner Walkinshaw later said they continued working that night on "population balancing" to align map boundaries with the agreement. Graves said the commission made decisions on the map after the deadline, but "they weren’t discretionary decisions;" just a line here and a line there to make the map match the agreement.
On Tuesday morning, the commission issued a statement admitting they were "unable to adopt a districting plan" on time. They blamed the two scourges of the age: Donald Trump and video conferencing. Or rather, in their words: "The late release of the 2020 census data combined with technical challenges." (The Legislature also moved up the deadline from December to mid-November, so that shortened the time even further.) That evening, the commission transferred redistricting responsibilities to the Court, released the Congressional and Legislative maps they claim reflected the “agreement” they’d come to the night before, and pushed the Court to adopt them despite the late work. On Wednesday, the Lord rested.
Why did the vote come down to the wire?
One of the many questions at a Thursday press conference with the commissioners: Why did the vote go down to the wire in the first place?
Commissioner Graves described the final day of negotiations as "chaotic." The commission blew a self-imposed 5 pm deadline to make a deal, but Graves said he wanted to "keep trying" anyway, and so he and Sims got to work.
Graves and Sims said the major sticking points revolved around boundaries in the 44th, 47th, 28th Legislative Districts. (That's the Snohomish, Covington/Auburn, and Tacoma areas, respectively.)
Commissioner Sims said "a significant amount of time" also went into trying to reach a deal on drawing a district in the Yakima Valley that complied with the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which prohibits political maps from giving minorities “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”
Though the commission claims it ultimately drew a VRA-compliant map by creating a 15th LD wherein voting-age Latinos who are citizens constituted an extremely narrow majority (50.02%), a group of UCLA voting experts argued that the map wasn't good enough. In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig argued the same thing. Graves and Fain countered, arguing the UCLA critique relied on a law the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in 2018.
Secrecy made it hard to know for sure
It's hard to know for certain what the commissioners were really arguing about and what motivated their decisions. Though state law required the commissioners to work in public, they mostly skirted the law by meeting in “caucus dyads.” The partisan pairs "were receiving full map offers from one side, reviewing them, analyzing them, then working with our mapping staff to draw full map responses," Graves said. On the last day of negotiations, Graves said the commission was in a hotel "somewhere in Federal Way operating from separate meeting rooms and coming together for discussion at various points" during their hourslong meeting.
Because they allegedly never met as a group of four, they never achieved a quorum, and so they felt as if all those sidebar conversations and full map offers didn’t violate the state's Open Public Meetings Act, which requires "deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews, evaluations, and final actions" to happen in the cold light of day.
At the press conference, Commissioner Graves said they used this dyads system because it was "easier" and "more fruitful" to negotiate that way "rather than do it fully noted" 24 hours in advance and in public. He added that the work "fell short of his standards for open government."
Nevertheless, despite the secrecy, and though Walkinshaw expressed some "reservations" about the numbers in the Yakima Valley region, all four commissioners strongly urged the Supreme Court to adopt these maps. After all, the commission had gathered public input for months, worked hard despite major differences in opinion, and ultimately agreed on the final results.
What's in the maps?
Here is how the commission drew the state's 10 Congressional Districts:
Here is how the commission drew the state's 49 Legislative Districts:
Here is what the partisan breakdown would look like based on "the composite of 2016 Pres, 2020 Pres, 2016 Sen, 2018 Sen, 2020 Gov, and 2020 AG general election results." Commissioner Graves said the commissioners used the results from the 2020 State Treasurer race to make their judgements on estimated partisan performance, so this map unfortunately does not align with the map they were using:
If this mock-up of the partisan performance is correct, then the new Legislative District map would include 26 districts that lean Democratic, 12 that lean Republican, and 11 swing districts in the following districts: 10, 12, 15, 17, 18, 25, 26, 35, 39, 21, 42. That number of swings and those particular districts — if not the sizes of the swings — more closely reflect Grave's initial proposed map.
Commissioner Graves said the map would displace Republican Reps. Jeremie Dufault (LD 15, Yakima) and Vicki Kraft (LD 17, Vancouver), Dem Rep. Shelley Kloba (LD 1, Bothell), plus Dem Sens Bob Hasegawa (11th LD South Seattle) and Steve Hobbs (44th LD, Lake Stevens). Since Governor Inslee appointed Hobbs as the next Secretary of State, drawing him out of the district isn't a big deal for Democrats. Given that Graves initially proposed displacing 15 House Democrats, Sims walking away with only one displaced in this map suggests she fought hard to keep her incumbents. And though the GOP would lose a few incumbents in the House, the increased number of swing districts — from 6 to 11 — might benefit them in 2022, which is expected to be a red wave.
According to that mock-up in Dave's Redistricting App, the maps appear biased in favor of Republicans on a number of metrics:
State law requires the commission to draw "fair and effective representation and to encourage electoral competition," and they must not "favor or discriminate against any political party or group." The Republicans interpret "electoral competition" to mean partisan electoral competition, and so a Republican bias here would only be the expected result of their attempt to rebalance the scales. The Democrats interpret "electoral competition" to mean just that — competition in elections — which they say the state's top-two primary system already encourages.
What happens next?
A Court spokesperson said the commission sent the Court the maps Tuesday evening, and the Court has no idea what process it will use to draw up the maps nor what the timeline will look like.
If they wanted to, the Court justices could take a page from 1980s Washington Republicans and draw up the new lines using felt-tip pens. Or they could take a page from Virginia's Supreme Court and pick a new set of partisan "special masters" to draw up new maps. Or they could hire some demographer nerd to do it. Or they could just accept the maps our own partisans failed to turn in on time. In general, the Court will likely care about more about drawing a map that complies with the VRA and state law, and less about protecting incumbents of either party.
In the meantime, they're planning to set up a website and an email notification system for all updates relating to the issue.