Once every decade, there’s an opportunity for deep political skulduggery. Until now, it was the province of a few masters of electoral minutiae that most of us don’t have and wouldn’t want if the choice was between that and being struck by lightning.
I’m talking about redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative districts based on the latest census figures.
The process involves knowing how many people live where, then arranging them so each of the state’s 49 legislative districts, and its now 10 congressional districts, have as close to the same number of residents as possible and people with “common interests” aren’t unduly separated.
At least, that’s the textbook explanation, for the politically naïve. Any politician will tell you redistricting is really about redrawing lines so your party gets an unfair advantage over the other party, and if you have to cobble together an unlikely amalgamation of voting blocs, so be it.
The term for such redistricting, gerrymandering, is named for Elbridge Gerry, who was governor of Massachusetts when that state redrew lines in 1812 in such a tortured fashion to benefit his party that one contorted district looked like a salamander.
It’s probably unfair that Gerry, who merely signed the legislation and didn’t draw the lines, is best known for chicanery not of his doing. For the record, Gerry was one of the Founding Fathers, who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and served as James Madison’s vice president for two years.
Just as people with a deep knowledge of the political leanings of 1812 Massachusetts came up with the first gerrymander, other people with similar deep knowledge of other places have devised ingenious configurations since. Before you suggest gerrymandering doesn’t happen in this more enlightened era, you might want to take a look at a legislative map of Spokane County.
There is no logical reason why the eastern boundary of the 6th District stretches three-fourths of the way around the 3rd District, creating the impression the 6th is the mouth of a large carnivore trying to swallow the 3rd. But there is a political reason. When the district was first drawn in 1992, Spokane County was losing a legislative district to Pugetopolis. The 5th District, which was sacrificed, was a swing district where it was never a sure bet that one party or the other would win an election; the 3rd was reliably Democratic and the 6th reliably Republican.
Rather than create two swing districts – what would be the sense of competitive elections, after all? – that decade’s commission ensured the remaining districts stayed predictably partisan. They also moved the lines in such a way that a 6th District representative from the lower South Hill was able to capture an open Senate seat in predominantly North Side 3rd.
This bit of history is a lead-up to the real news: The current Redistricting Commission comes to Spokane on Tuesday on its statewide listening tour. The monthly commissioner meeting begins at 5 p.m. at Spokane Falls Community College Lounges A and B, with the public forum starting right afterward.
The commission also is making it much easier for those interested in the process to propose district lines they think are fair or make sense. Its website, www.redistricting.wa.gov, has a do-it-yourself redistricting application that will link the population of each voting precinct in the state with a Google Earth map and a voting precinct overlay. With minimal computer skills, decent Internet speed and a bit of waiting for downloads, anyone can rearrange the congressional or legislative districts to meet the new population standards.
This combination of programs allows people in Hillyard or West Central or Moran Prairie or Millwood to carve up the districts based on what they know about local politics, then make the case that this is the absolute best way to go. This is significant because all four voting members of the commission are West Siders. In other words, they don’t know what you may know about Spokane and Eastern Washington voting peculiarities.
They have to keep most of Eastern Washington together for the 5th Congressional District. But the 3rd Legislative District has to gain the second-most people of any legislative district, the 7th and 9th are a bit light, and the 4th and 6th have to lose people. In previous decades, this kind of strategic rearranging would require pads of yellow legal paper, a calculator, multiple maps and lots of magic markers to suit your political needs.
But gerrymandering in 2011? There’s an app for that.