By Megan Bodenhamer
Any native of Washington State knows, first-hand, the degree of political polarization that exists in the state. The western part of Washington State encompasses the most heavily populated and liberal part of the state, including Seattle and the rest of King County. In contrast, the eastern part of the state is much more conservative and rural. This split makes politics in the state especially contentious and divisive. Interestingly, as a result of this stark geographical and cultural divide, the eastern part of Washington State has threatened to secede and create its own state quite frequently throughout history.
This split political climate forms the background for all legal and political issues in the state. This is especially true for election laws and redistricting. In most states, politicians or legislatures draw the maps for state elections. In other words, the politicians whose job security depends on elections are the same people who draw the districts that determine the outcome of elections. In places like Washington, where political opinions are deeply entrenched and divisive, this can be problematic. In thirty-four states, districting for state elections is done predominately by state legislatures. Washington is just one of fourteen states that has an independent districting commission. The remaining two states have a hybrid model.
The body that draws maps in Washington is called the Washington State Redistricting Commission, which is a board made up of five commissioners. Four of the commissioners are selected by the majority and minority leaders in each chamber of the state legislature. These four commissioners, then, vote on a fifth commissioner who serves as the non-voting chair. The non-voting chair’s role is to establish areas of common ground and facilitate compromise. This results in a bi-partisan commission with two seats for the Democratic Party and two seats for the Republican Party, who decide the fifth, non-partisan chair together. This makes Washington unique because it is only one of nine states with a non-politician districting commission. This means that commissioners may not have been elected as a district, county, or state party officer, nor may they have been another type of elected official within two years of appointment to the commission. Additionally, commissioners may not have been a registered lobbyist within one year of appointment. There are also requirements during a commissioner’s appointment. Commissioners may not campaign for elected office or participate in or donate to any political campaign for state or federal elected office. For two years following their service, commissioners may not hold or campaign for congressional or state legislative office.
In a staunchly divided state like Washington, it would seem beneficial to have a non-politician and bipartisan districting commission. However, it is questionable whether these requirements actually prevent political gamesmanship and gerrymandering. First, the prohibition on politicians is not a difficult hurdle to overcome. Two years without running for public office hardly prevents someone with political motivations or budding political ambitions from being selected to the commission. Further, because commissioners are selected by state legislatures, they are likely colleagues or affiliates of politicians, not far-removed non-partisan individuals as is required. Further, because the majority and minority leaders each get to pick a representative, it is likely they will pick a commissioner that represents their political ideations. Being selected by a group of politicians is not altogether different from the leaders appointing a politician to the commission.
The Washington State Redistricting Commission has not been without its flaws. The Commission was unable to come to a consensus and meet its November 15, 2021, deadline to draw district maps. Instead, the Washington State Supreme Court was tasked with drawing the state’s new legislative maps. In March of this year, the chair of the commission, Sara Augustine, resigned from her position. Her decision came after the commission failed to intervene in a lawsuit regarding its own maps. She claims that in failing to defend the maps, state authorities have undermined the compromise that went into creating maps that protect the public interest. Moreover, the Commission is under suspicion for conducting their deliberations of map drawing in private, in violation of a Washington law called the Open Public Meetings Act. This act requires all meetings of governing bodies of public agencies be open to the public. Clearly, the realities of bipartisan map drawing are not as idyllic as they may seem on paper.
While the basis of a non-politician and bipartisan districting commission sounds like a modern solution to districting issues, Washington State is an important case study testing out this theory. While the Commission may not have been wholly successful, it will be interesting to see how Washington approaches its next redistricting. If Washington, with its intense political polarization, can find a way to manage bi-partisan and apolitical districting, perhaps the rest of the nation could follow its lead.