For the first time, the Washington District Redistribution Commission thwarted statutory deadlines to agree on new district maps for the legislature and Congress.
The failure of the bipartisan commission means that Washington’s election maps for the next decade – starting mid-term in 2022 – will be in the hands of the state’s Supreme Court, which will have to draw new boundaries by April 30.
The commission acknowledged its deadlock on Tuesday following a Zoom marathon held the night before, which ended in a bizarre spectacle when commissioners put on a show vote to approve new maps shortly before midnight.
By morning it became clear that the vote was a hoax.
“Last night, after significant work, marked by mutual respect and dedication to an important task, the four voting commissioners of the State Constituency Redistribution Commission were unable to adopt the constituency plan by midnight,” the commission said in a statement. The late release of census data and unspecified technical problems “made the work of the commission very difficult.”
The maps, which were allegedly agreed on Monday night, have never been made public, and the voting commissioners – Democrats Brady Pinero Walkinshaw and April Sims, as well as Republicans Joe Fein and Paul Graves – spent most of the five-hour meeting in private. sometimes with undefined updates.
In addition to failing to fulfill their task, advocates of transparency argued that the conduct of the commissioners was likely to violate the State’s Open Public Assembly Act, which typically requires the governing bodies of state bodies to make decisions publicly.
“It is very clear that this was a deliberate attempt to essentially hide the discussion from the public,” said Mike Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, adding that even if the commission somehow obeyed the letter of the law, “it was definitely a violation of the spirit of the law. “.
State law required at least three of the four party commissioners by Monday to agree on new boundaries for the state’s 10 congressional districts and 49 legislative districts – a change in allocation every ten years since the US census.
The bipartisan state commissions, approved by the electorate in the 1983 constitutional amendment, were able to reach compromise decisions in 1991, 2001, and 2011.
The 2021 Commission did not achieve similar results and did little to explain what happened on Tuesday.
Four members of the voting commission were appointed by the leaders of the Republican and Democratic factions in the State House of Representatives and Senate.
Commissioners canceled a press conference scheduled for Tuesday, and neither the four voting commissioners, non-partisan commission chairman Sara Augustin, nor the commission representative responded to repeated requests for interviews.
Behind the scenes, the commissioners spent at least part of Tuesday engaging in shuttle diplomacy at the Federal Way Hotel, meeting in groups of two in an effort to avoid breaking public assembly laws.
It remains unclear exactly how the whole thing fell apart. After voting on Monday night, the commission sent an official letter to the Legislative Assembly, stating that its work was completed.
“It is with great satisfaction and pride that the Washington State Redistribution Commission is presenting the final Washington State Redistribution Plan for 2021,” the letter says, which says the commission has done well and is attaching digital copies of the new maps.
But the members of the commission signed this document on Tuesday morning, after the deadline. According to Senate Secretary Brad Hendrickson, no final maps were sent with this message.
In the weeks ahead of the deadline, there were signs of serious controversy as Democrats pushed for a majority in the Latin American legislature in Central Washington, touting legal analysis claiming it was required under federal voting rights law, and Republicans seeking to create the benefits of reducing Democratic majority in the Legislative Assembly.
In a sense, the stalemate was a sign of the hyperpolarized political environment of 2021.
“It was really clear that there was no way to get to the middle and come to a consensus on something. That’s what the process required, ”said Tim Seis, a former deputy mayor of Seattle who was the Democratic commissioner in the last round of redistribution of constituencies in 2011, and negotiated compromise cards with Republicans, including the late US Senator Slade Gorton.
Because the state Supreme Court was generally considered liberal – many of its members were appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee – some Democrats felt that justices could be favorably disposed towards the party’s desired outcomes.
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, Dee-Spokane, who nominated Walkinshaw as a member of the commission, said the court must now “complete the job” and that the “Latin American majority constituency” is part of that job.
“I am confident that the Supreme Court elected by the people of this state will draw a map that represents the values of this state and will comply with the requirements of state and federal law,” Billig said.
Andrew Hong, lead organizer of Redistricting Justice for Washington, a progressive coalition that promoted the Latin American legislature with a majority vote, said it was “a shame” that Republican commissioners didn’t agree to such a plan, “and showed no intentions. do this throughout the entire process. “
Randy Pepple, a longtime Republican political consultant, said Democrats have little incentive to compromise given the composition of the court and the polarized political environment. “The Democrats went into this, as they did all over the country, – they think a liberal judiciary is better than making a deal with the Republicans,” he said.
However, Seis and Pepple argued that the trial is something of a dice game for both sides – and especially for lawmakers, who can be pulled out of their districts by a court that does not value acting protections as much as party commissioners. …
“I think you have to assume that the Supreme Court, although liberal, is not necessarily biased,” Seis said. “I assume that they will do their best not to give preference to this or that party. It will be interesting to watch. “
A missed deadline at least could give headaches to incumbent leaders and potential candidates awaiting a decision by the state Supreme Court.
Senator Sam Hunt, Senator of the Olympia Democratic Party, said the commission had little time on both sides compared to previous attempts at redistributing constituencies.
First, the delay in counting the census left members less time to work, said Hunt, chairman of the Senate committee overseeing state government affairs.
Second, in 2016, lawmakers proposed an amendment to the state’s constitution to move the commission’s deadline to November 15 from the end of the year. This amendment passed in the elections in November 2016, and more than 77% of voters voted for it. Supporters argued that the change would ensure the new cards are accepted before the holidays, which will generate more public response.
“I certainly understand the pressure they felt,” Hunt said. “Obviously, it’s not easy to do.”
But the commission’s speech Monday night drew widespread condemnation from many political observers who watched the public rally only to see little public debate.
“If the local government did something like that, the Legislature would spend months berating every city and county in the state for months. This is a complete joke. ” tweeted Pierce County Council Chair Derek Young.
Andrew Villeneuve, founder of the Northwest Institute for Progressive Development, wrote in an email: “The Commission was unable to carry out community work in public and did not even achieve its goals privately. Rather than admitting this setback in the last seconds, the Commission seemed to be trying to buy more time to produce something by unreasonably voting to accept cards that the Commission members knew did not exist. “
It is not known how the impasse will unfold before the trial. If the commissioners were close to a compromise on the final versions of the maps and eventually came to an agreement, Hunt said, they could ask the court to approve it.
The court can also draw its own maps, Hunt said, citing an example from 1972. In this case, after lawmakers were at an impasse, a federal court appointed a University of Washington geography professor as a special foreman to oversee the task.
Meanwhile, potential violations by the commission of the state’s public sittings law have already sparked a lawsuit filed Tuesday in the Thurston County Supreme Court by open government activist Arthur West.
West’s complaint described the commission’s behavior as a “sudden, deliberate, unprovoked and dastardly attack” on the public’s right to be informed of the government’s actions.