Congressional and state legislative district lines in Washington are drawn by a five- member independent redistricting commission. Four of the commissioners are selected by each of the four legislative leaders in the state legislature, and the four commissioners in turn select the fifth. If there is no consensus, the state supreme court selects the fifth commissioner. The commission then submits its redistricting plan to the state legislature, where the legislators may amend the plan within 30 days if two-thirds of each chamber votes to do so.
Overall State Grade: B-
Lack of transparency: In the eleventh hour as the commission was poised to miss the legal deadlines for approving a redistricting plan, the members of the commission decided to leave a publicly noticed meeting and go behind closed doors to negotiate final redistricting plans. In this critical moment, the commission emerged back into a public meeting only minutes before a midnight deadline to vote on approving a set of maps that was not written down nor made available to the public, violating Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act. By doing so, the commission also failed to discuss in public how it reached its decisions. Advocates noted that much of the substance of the redistricting process was done behind the scenes instead of in public.
Failure to adequately serve communities of color: Although the members of the commission were warned during the map-drawing process, advocates in the state ultimately filed a lawsuit against the enacted maps for failing to adequately draw legislative maps to provide for districts to serve Latinx communities in the Yakima Valley area. Advocates argue that the legislative districts in the Yakima Valley fail to perform for the Latinx communities’ candidates of choice. Litigation is ongoing as of August 2023.
- Greater outreach to Native communities and tribal governments improves representation: One of the strongest features of the commission-approved maps was an improvement in keeping tribal communities together within districts. The recognition of Native reservations and the early engagement by the commission of Native communities was a positive step to ensure that this commission was more responsive to Native people and to include that feedback in the final maps. The commission also took the opportunity to meet and hear from each of the tribal councils.
- Collaborative coalition partners make more effective advocates: Advocates noted that there was a strong working coalition of advocacy and non-profit organizations in the state that fought to keep communities together, educated their communities about the redistricting process, turned out people to provide a record number of public comments and public input, and submitted draft maps to the commission for consideration. The strength of the coalition was reflected in part in its ability to resolve differences internally, as well as to serve as trusted messengers in the communities they serve to expand public engagement around redistricting.
Translation services and virtual meetings expand public participation: Despite the stark lack of transparency in decision-making, there were largely ample opportunities throughout the redistricting process before the final maps were considered for the public to provide input. Meetings were held online, making public participation more accessible. There was expansive language assistance in the commission’s work, providing for live translation in Spanish and American Sign Language during meetings and producing other public content in a dozen languages. Ads were also produced in various languages and placed on social media.
- The commission’s structure can be significantly improved to ensure more independence: Although Washington’s redistricting commission is represented as an independent commission, its members are appointed based on party lines by politicians. Furthermore, the redistricting plans adopted by the commission are open to amendment by the state legislature. Advocates note that this makes the state’s redistricting commission not independent and are calling for a shift to a fully independent commission that is made up of citizens, not political appointees, to draw the state’s district lines.
- Greater protections against secrecy are needed to ensure transparency: With the violation of the state’s open meetings laws, future redistricting cycles must operate in public view with full transparency. The discussions commissioners have regarding their decision-making process and how they advocate for lines to be drawn must be done in public meetings. The public must have an opportunity to understand how decisions are made and what factors are influencing the commissioners’ decisions.