OLYMPIA – Following chaotic, mostly secret final meetings of the Washington State Redistricting Commission, the state Legislature is looking to reform how redistricting is done in the state.
While the Senate approved changes to the redistricting process Wednesday, the House approved final legislative and congressional maps for the next 10 years. The bill that passed the Senate on Wednesday would not apply to this year’s redistricting plan, but would go in effect after the 2030 census.
The Senate proposal passed unanimously and would require the redistricting commission to make any map publicly available at least three days before voting on it. It also requires any amendments to those plans be debated and voted on in an open session. Following passage of those amendments, the commission would be required to wait at least one day before a vote on final approval.
“I think I’m not the only one who was surprised and disappointed that this past Nov. 15, as the clock approached midnight, without actually having agreed on a plan, without having published a plan for public comment, our redistricting commission voted to approve some sort of oral agreement that they had to send that over to us,” bill sponsor Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said on the floor.
The commission’s final meeting before the Nov. 15 deadline last year included only about 31 minutes in front of the public. The rest of the meeting was spent with commission members behind closed doors in groups of two.
The meeting ended with chaotic votes just before and just after the midnight deadline on what commissioners called “agreements that would turn into final maps.” No final maps were seen by the public until almost 24 hours later.
What happened in those final hours before the deadline remains mostly unclear, aside from a memo released in December from a staffer that described last-minute deals discussed both in person and through text messages, away from the public.
The next day, the commission admitted it failed to reach an agreement by the statutory midnight deadline, leaving the redrawing of the maps up the state Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court then agreed it would accept the commission’s final maps as the commission “substantially complied” with the deadline.
Final approval of the maps now rests in the Legislature, which has until Tuesday to pass them. Any changes would require a two-thirds vote.
A House concurrent resolution was introduced Friday and includes a number of changes to the maps approved by the commission last year. The state House of Representatives voted 88-7 on Wednesday to approve that resolution.
Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the changes that county auditors requested are “technical in nature.” The map boundaries can be found at redistricting.wa.gov/legislative-process.
The maps must still pass the state Senate.
There is already a lawsuit filed over the maps by a Latino civil rights organization claiming the proposed boundaries violate the Voting Rights Act by not allowing a majority Latino district in Yakima.
Pedersen acknowledged Wednesday the bill did not address all of the changes that everyone thinks should be made, but it does target a few of the problems that arose this past year.
Public confidence in the redistricting process will be enhanced by this transparency, he said.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said on the floor the commission did get the job done despite an earlier deadline from the Legislature and late Census data because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Getting this bill in place will make the process even better,” Padden said.
The commission’s final meeting brought concerns that the commission violated the Open Public Meetings Act. The Washington Coalition for Open Government filed a lawsuit in December, saying decisions made by the commission were made while violating the open meetings law.
The Supreme Court last month said it would not bypass trial court to hear the case immediately. The coalition said it would pursue the case in Thurston County Superior Court.
The bill now heads to the state House of Representatives for further consideration.