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Washington redistricting commission admits it failed to meet deadline; questions on what happened in final hours remain

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 16, 2021

OLYMPIA – Washington’s redistricting commission missed its Monday deadline to redraw legislative and congressional maps, ceding the responsibility to the state Supreme Court.

It is the first time the court has been tasked with drawing districts since the task fell to a nonpartisan redistricting commission for redrawing districts after the 1990 Census. Its decisions will last for 10 years.

The commission, made up of two Republican appointees and two Democratic appointees, had until 11:59 p.m. Monday to approve maps for the 10 U.S. House districts and 49 state legislative districts. After hours of private meetings late Monday that raised questions about possible violations of the law requiring meetings to be open to the public, the commission seemingly approved new maps, although none had been seen by the public at that point.

Just after midnight, before the group adjourned, the group’s chair even congratulated the other members for completing their tasks.

But in a statement released Tuesday morning, the commission acknowledged it missed the deadline. It was unclear how the deadline was missed because the vote appeared to be before midnight, although what the commission actually voted on was not made public.

The commission’s spokesperson did not respond for comment on how the deadline was missed.

“Last night, after substantial work marked by mutual respect and dedication to the important task, the four voting commissioners on the state redistricting commission were unable to adopt a districting plan by the midnight deadline,” a statement from the commission read.

The statement points to the late release of 2020 Census data and technical challenges during Monday’s meeting as “hampering the commission’s work considerably.”

According to state law, if the commission fails to approve and submit a plan within the time limit, the Supreme Court must adopt a plan by April 30. It will be in effect for the next election that year.

What happened Monday night

Tuesday’s statement followed a long, confusing and mostly closed-door meeting late Monday where commissioners were deliberating until the last possible moment.

As the midnight deadline drew closer, commissioners still seemed to have work undone. Within the last hour, Republican appointee Joe Fain was working to decide where Mercer Island should be placed in the final congressional maps. With less than 30 minutes before the deadline, Democratic appointee April Sims said the commission “might be able to take a vote” Monday night. With even 20 minutes to spare, commissioners kept saying they “were working toward an agreement.”

After one final private caucus meeting, commissioners came back together in public with less than five minutes to spare for a hasty vote on final maps. What exactly was in those maps and how much of it was actually done on time still remained unknown by the public Tuesday afternoon.

Before the vote, chair Sarah Augustine said final maps passed by the commission would be uploaded on their website “before dawn,” but as of Tuesday morning, no maps were available. The commission also canceled a news conference where they were expected to answer questions post-deadline.

Concerns with open meetings

The commission’s long mostly private Monday meeting brought on questions of whether it complied with the Open Public Meetings Act.

The commission is subject to the law, which requires it to meet and make decisions in public. Other than a few brief check-ins with the public, most of Monday night was spent with the commissioners broken into groups of two, based on their political caucus.

There was only a brief, less-than-30-minute discussion in public before the final vote late Monday.

According to the law, public voting bodies can go behind closed doors for only select reasons, such as personnel matters, legal issues or security concerns. The commissioners did not explain how the mostly-private meetings complied with the Open Public Meetings Act.

Juli Bunting, executive director of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said it appears that the commission “very blatantly” violated the Open Public Meetings Act.

She said while she is not an attorney, if someone took the commission to court over it, “it’s a pretty egregious violation for such an important task.” She called it “a slap in the face.”

“Any time a public government entity violates that law, it’s a violation of the public trust,” she said.

How they failed to meet their deadline

Past redistricting commissions have had more time to craft new boundaries.

In 2011, the commission had until Jan. 1 to release maps. Five years later, voters moved the deadline to Nov. 15 in an effort to give the state more time to implement districts before the following primary elections.

The COVID-19 pandemic also brought challenges for the 2021 commission, pushing back the arrival of Census data and making it unable to meet in person.

Throughout Monday night, the commissioners said they faced some technical issues as they were finishing up their map drawing but that they were hopeful they would be able to take action by midnight.

Despite the late data and new deadline, commissioners just last week were fairly confident they could reach a deal in time but hinted there was still disagreement. Some sticking points included creating a mostly-Latino legislative district in Yakima to comply with the Voting Rights Act and creating a district that spans both the east and west sides of the Cascades.

Washington is now the second state this year to send its redistricting to the state Supreme Court, according to a tweet from Dave Wasserman at the Cook Political Report. Last month, Virginia’s independent redistricting commission failed to reach an agreement on maps, sending the final decision to the court. According to the Washington Post, Democratic and Republican leadership in Virginia can offer nominees for the court to hire as experts who can help with redrawing maps. It is in the process of appointing those experts.

It’s unclear how Washington’s Supreme Court will handle the job.

What’s next

The Supreme Court does not have to follow what the commission already started, but as the commission seemed close to final maps late Monday, the court may just pick up where the commission left off.

Wendy Ferrell, spokesperson for the court, wrote in an email the court will create a plan and process for the justices’ consideration. As of Monday, the court still was awaiting filings that the commission failed to meet its deadline.

“The commissioners have every faith that the Supreme Court will draw maps that are fair and worthy of the people of Washington,” according to the commission’s statement.

During Monday’s meeting, commissioners’ gave brief descriptions of what their final maps might have looked like.

Democratic appointee Brady Piñero Walkinshaw said in the final map the commission was contemplating the fourth district, which currently includes the Tri-Cities, and the fifth district, which includes Spokane, would continue to run north and south in Eastern Washington.

For legislative maps, Republican appointee Paul Graves said the maps the commission was considering worked to keep communities together but add new competitive districts.

Each commissioner had different priorities for their maps and negotiating compromises proved difficult. The two Republican appointees, Joe Fain and Graves, had prioritized creating more competitive districts across the state, which they said would encourage more political participation. The two Democratic appointees, April Sims and Walkinshaw, prioritized including those who have been historically left out in the conversations.

“Taking all the discussion we’ve had over the last few months and turning them into maps is a challenging process,” Graves said.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said he was confident the Supreme Court will draw maps that represent the values of the state and meet state and federal requirements.

“Time and time again, Washingtonians expressed their desire for a map that keeps cities, counties and communities of interest together, offers fair, unbiased and equal representation to all, and importantly creates a majority Latino legislative district in Yakima as the federal Voting Rights Act requires,” Billig said.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said he hopes the court remains as “fair and impartial as possible,” but he was worried about high turnover among legislators. The court may not look as closely at where incumbents live when drawing its districts, he said.

The Legislature could look at changing the redistricting process, but it’s unclear if lawmakers will want to prioritize that in upcoming sessions.

Padden said the Legislature could try to include some form of arbitration into the process or moving the deadline but said he would want to hear from the commissioners about their experience this year before making any decisions.

“It’s a shame it came down to the last minute and everything,” Padden said. “I don’t know if there’s a magic formula that worked before, but it appears they were very, very close this year.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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