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Sue Lani Madsen: Flip the 4th and 5th

Washington’s 4th and 5th congressional districts currently stretch vertically from Oregon to the Canadian border. But what if the 4th and 5th were flipped 90° to run east-west instead of north-south? That was the proposal made to the Washington State Redistricting Commission during testimony on May 22, 2021, in its District 5 virtual public outreach meeting.

The state of Washington has used a bipartisan redistricting commission since 1991, a process developed after decades of legislative and judicial wrangling. Consequently, Washington’s electoral map reflects little of the gerrymandering that results in weirdly shaped boundaries in other states, connecting isolated precincts for partisan purposes.

That doesn’t mean members of the commission are oblivious to the political implications of their decisions. Drastically redrawing the 4th and 5th congressional district boundaries would have a major impact on two current incumbents, Rep. Dan Newhouse and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

But a series of citizens testifying from Walla Walla County made a good case for change. By statute, boundaries should enclose “communities of interest” that are “convenient, contiguous, and compact territory” and the “number of counties and municipalities divided among more than one district should be as small as possible.”

Walla Walla County was split between the 4th and 5th in 2011 as part of compromises creating a 10th congressional district in the state of Washington. Walla Walla, Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties share common types of agriculture, a growing winery and wine-tasting tourism industry, the Snake River watershed and economic ties. A doctor pointed out the pattern of health care referrals between Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities as an important “community of interest” which should be kept together.

To the north, the Colville Reservation spreads across Ferry and Okanogan counties and both congressional districts. Several who testified, including Brian McClatchey, currently serving on the Spokane County Commissioner redistricting commission, asked to reunite the reservation in a single congressional district. It’s easily done if the boundary flips east-west and returns Okanogan County to the 5th Congressional District.

What sounds smooth theoretically is the result of a clunky mapping process. Su Ky is a geographer who worked on the 2011 redistricting team. The GIS specialists were told districts had to be the same population to within 20 people. Keeping counties or communities intact was a “should” but not a “must.”

One challenge was and will be the data available. Census blocks are part of a system first developed for the 2000 census, based on permanent landmarks and independent of more familiar boundaries. Precincts, reservations and the school, fire, hospital and water districts important to common community interests are on other layers of the geographical information system database. Geographers must rely on mapping by census blocks as a practical way to provide tallies of population as they rearrange the puzzle pieces for commissioners’ review.

Creating a 10th congressional district absorbed much of the statewide attention in 2011, but legislative district boundaries also change every ten years. Washington’s 14.6% population growth is not evenly distributed. Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley) testified in support of maintaining Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake in a single legislative district, but acknowledged the boundaries must shrink physically to accommodate the area’s strong growth.

As the December 31 deadline for a final plan approaches every ten years, pressure to finish the work can leave awkward splits to make the numbers work. During the 2011 redistricting process, I was serving as chairman of the Lincoln County Republicans and can empathize with the Colvilles’ and Walla Walla County pleas for reunification in 2021. Splitting the Colville Reservation or a largely rural county creates significant issues in building working relationships between stretched thin volunteers and busy political staff.

The pre-2011 legislative district map had Lincoln County in the 7th Legislative District to the northeast, bordering on the 6th, 9th and 12th to the east, south and west. It seemed likely Lincoln County would be an afterthought to balance the population in at least one of those legislative districts, and possibly be trampled in the congressional district shuffle. I submitted comments pleading for unity and haunted the commission meetings online all year.

And then a draft map came out with only a week left in the process. We were solidly in the 5th Congressional District but split for legislative redistricting along U.S. Highway 2, with four of seven small incorporated municipalities sliced in half. Notices went out on the electronic grapevine to bombard the redistricting commissioners directly. It had an impact. In the unveiling of the final map of Eastern Washington legislative districts, the second phrase out of the commissioner’s mouth was “and Lincoln County is all in one district.”

We were unified but with completely unexpected partners. Lincoln County was shifted whole into the 13th Legislative District with most of Grant, all of Kittitas and a few unlucky precincts in Yakima County to balance the population counts. County and legislative district leadership was instrumental in building new ties in a district stretching from Spokane County to Snoqualmie Pass, and it has turned out to be a good fit. It is possible to absorb a major redistricting and thrive.

Flipping the 4th and 5th congressional districts horizontal is worth considering early in the process. Your involvement can have an impact. It’s another one of those “speak now or hold your peace” moments, at least until the next census. You can follow and participate in the state level action at https://www.redistricting.wa.gov/.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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