Manipulating voting boundaries to influence elections is a device as old as the nation. Patrick Henry used it, hoping to keep James Madison out of Congress. And that was more than 20 years before Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s scheming inspired the word “gerrymander.”
We’ve cleaned up our democratic act a lot since that formative era, and there’s little fear today that partisan game-playing will disrupt the way the Washington State Redistricting Commission transforms 2010 census figures into new congressional and legislative district boundaries.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t inherent worries about fairness.
One glaring concern as the commission convenes today in Olympia is the lack, so far, of any member from Eastern Washington.
This will be the third census under the state’s carefully designed redistricting process, which mercifully replaced the rowdy, smoke-filled-room charades that were the norm when the Legislature – or at least whichever party was in control – handled the map-making.
Now, the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate name one member each, and those four must agree on a fifth who will serve as a nonvoting chairman. That choice is an item on today’s agenda, and it is the last chance to address the geographical imbalance created when all four caucus leaders appointed Western Washingtonians.
This is not mere parochial sulking. While the bulk of Washington’s population lies west of the Cascades, the people on this side of the state are entitled to informed representation in the process that will determine how accurately and fairly their interests are represented by elected state and federal lawmakers for the next decade.
It’s a formidable assignment to complete by next year when it must go to the Legislature for adoption, and there’s more to it than calculating one-person-one-vote balance. Long division can achieve that.
The commission has to define a new 10th Congressional District while reconfiguring the boundaries of the others – as well as 49 legislative districts – to reflect population changes. All across the state, some voters will find themselves in different districts in 2012 and represented by different lawmakers.
Further challenges arise over preserving communities of interest and respecting the geographical and transportation considerations that affect voter participation but differ greatly between rural Eastern Washington and the denser population distributions up and down Interstate 5.
Ten years ago, in a similar situation, the four political appointees settled on former Public Disclosure Commission director Graham Johnson, then living in Spokane.
Some major state entities, such as the Transportation Commission, require geographical balance, but not the Redistricting Commission. The 2001 commission took that step anyway. The 2011 commission should follow its example.