Special commissions are busy around the state with the once-in-a-decade task of drawing new lines for congressional, legislative, county and municipal districts.
While they debate where one legislator or member of Congress’s territory should stop and another’s should start, there is one relatively easy task they could accomplish that would make life easier for voters everywhere.
Along with redistricting, they should consider “renumbering.”
The system for numbering legislative and congressional districts in Washington makes no sense and really hasn’t for more than half a century.
For example, Spokane County and much of Eastern Washington are home to all or parts of the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th and 9th legislative districts.
So where are the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 8th? you might ask.
The 1st is in Snohomish County, the 2nd in Pierce and Thurston counties, and the 5th in King County. The 8th is on the western edge of the 9th, although pretty far removed from the 7th.
At the start of statehood, the numbering of legislative districts followed a pattern that started with the 1st District in north central Washington at the east slope of the Cascades and moved more or less clockwise around the state. The counties to the north of Spokane County were the 2nd District, Spokane County was home to the 3rd through the 7th, Whitman County had the 8th and 9th, the 10th covered the southeast counties before the numbers moved west along the state’s southern boundaries then north up the Olympic Peninsula, then up the east side of the Puget Sound.
Some shrank and some expanded because of population growth, but they stayed pretty much in place. In 1931, the state started adding legislative districts to the faster growing areas of the Puget Sound, but most were at least fairly close to the other top numbers, so the single digits and teens stayed on the East Side. They did, however, have to drop a newly created 49th District into Vancouver in 1957.
That general numeric consistency ended in 1965 when the 1st District was moved from Okanogan County to King County as part of the redistricting and Okanogan was combined with Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties in the 2nd District. The 2nd was moved to Pierce County in 1972 and the 7th, which had been the West Plains and other rural parts of north Spokane County, was expanded to hold much of the previously combined 2nd District. The 5th District, which in the middle of the last century had been Spokane’s true swing district by covering parts of the northwest city of Spokane and surrounding suburbs, got moved in 1991 and the Spokane County legislative district lines were redrawn – some said gerrymandered – to contain or be part of one strongly Democratic and four strongly Republican districts.
This history explains why there’s nothing magic about the numbers. For some voters who live near a boundary, their legislative district number changes with redistricting even if their address stays the same and no one complains. Many other voters have only a vague idea of their district’s number and might only realize it when they see campaign yard signs go up every two years or notice it on the primary ballot that comes in the mail.
The folks most attached to the district numbers are probably the legislators themselves. They are apt to say they represent the good people of the (fill in the ordinal number) and have for (fill in the cardinal number) years.
Districts sometimes pick up nicknames. When the 6th District was a safe Republican district contained on Spokane’s South Hill, it was sometimes called the “Silk Stocking 6th.”
Several of the current redistricting proposals would wipe out any vestige of that. Some want much of the South Hill in the Democratic 3rd District, which could cause former 6th District legislators like Sam Guess and Dick Bond to spin in their graves. One proposal has it completely out of the city of Spokane and extending into Lincoln County, where voters have no attachment to that number.
Congressional districts are also numbered on a system that defies logic and comes from slowly expanding the number of members the state sends to the U.S. House of Representatives. The 1st and 2nd are in the state’s northwest corner, but the 8th, 9th and 10th are between them and the 3rd, while the 6th is off to the west. The 4th and 5th are on the other side of the Cascades.
So 2021 would be a good time for a wholesale renumbering of the legislative and congressional districts for a more logical fashion. The commission could start at one corner of the state, say the northeast corner, for the 1st Legislative District and work clockwise around the state until it gets to 49. It could then pick the opposite corner of the state for the 1st Congressional District and work counterclockwise around the state until it gets to 10.
A few people might be confused for one election, but after that everyone would probably get used to it and by 2031, the time of the next redistricting, everyone would be used to it.