Redistricting, Part II, Focus In

As detailed in Monday’s post, the U.S. Constitution mandates that Enumeration of Persons (the Census) every ten years is to be used to apportion (or “reapportion”) among the States the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. (The number of seats was capped by federal law in 1911 [interesting link] and set in stone by a 1929 law that arose out of urban/rural tension reminiscent of current divides.) Reapportionment of House seats is quite formulaic, but, of course, its fairness depends on the accuracy of the Census. Every decadal Census I have experienced was posed as a civic duty, everyone pulling together to get it right. At least that was true until last year, when Mr. Trump and his administration tried, contrary to the plain words of the Constitution, to count only verifiable citizens and further meddle with the accuracy of the Census by shortening the data collection period, sensing a Republican electoral advantage in these maneuvers. 

I have heard, but cannot now reference, that the reapportionment of seats in the U.S. House will be officially set by the end of July, 2021. Most states will have it relatively easy; they will retain the same number of seats in the House. For those states redistricting will involve adjustment of existing Congressional District lines to allow for population shifts. States that have to add or subtract a whole District on account of population shifts and resulting reapportionment will face a more complex task. Within the federal guidelines laid out in the 1960s that were discussed in Monday’s post, the re-drawing of the Congressional and legislative district lines (the redistricting) is left, by the U.S. Constitution, to state-level decision-making . In most of the states the majority party in the state legislature retains the power to redistrict both the State’s legislative districts (LDs) from which those state legislators are elected and the Congressional Districts (CDs) from which U.S. Representatives are elected. Six states, including Washington and Idaho, have, by law, established some form of non-legislative redistricting commission.  Such commissions should better balance the interests of the two major Parties and reduce the temptation for a majority party in a legislature to grossly gerrymander in pursuit of power. (This wikipedia article offers a nice overview of states’ redistricting methods.)

Residents of Spokane County this year are subject to redistricting by two similarly structured, but entirely distinct redistricting committees. One committee at the State level is responsible for redistricting of Congressional Districts and State legislative districts (see map) and another, at the County level, is responsible for establishing the five new county commissioner districts where there have been only three, a change mandated by State law. The newly mandated and formed Spokane country redistricting commission is closely modeled on the Washington State redistricting commission. 

Washington State passed a state constitutional amendment establishing a balanced bi-partisan redistricting commission in 1983 with 61% of the people’s vote. Article II, Section 43 of the State Constitution specifies the composition and function of the commission. The commission is composed of four voting members appointed by the majority and minority leaders of both the State House and the State Senate. The four voting members nominate a fifth member to serve as a non-voting chairperson. None of the redistricting commissioners may have served as a state or county elected official or a state political party officer within two years of appointment to the commission. The commission has a staff of 20-30 people, including an executive director. The legislature appropriates the funds for the running of the commission. The WA State redistricting commission has its own website. I encourage a quick visit. To approve a redistricting scheme requires concurrence of three of the four voting members of the commission. If the four voting commissioners deadlock 2 to 2 the drawing of the CD and LD lines goes to the state supreme court. (In the first two cycles, 1991 and 2001, the commission avoided deadlock.)

There is much to recommend this system. It avoids lopsided gerrymandered redistricting by the majority party in power in the state legislature in the year redistricting occurs (“in years ending in ‘1’”), like the Republican legislative takeover in Wisconsin using REDMAP in 2010-2011. It requires that the two major partys’ representatives on the redistricting commission come to some sort of compromise–or else they abdicate their decision-making to the state supreme court. But make no mistake, this is a balanced bi-partisan and definitely NOT a non-partisan process. Both Republican redistricting commissioners and one Democratic commissioner on the 2021 commission are recent former state legislators, people who undoubtedly retain connections in the current legislature (Fain, Graves, and Walkinshaw). The fourth voting commissioner, April Sims, the second Democratic appointee, is the Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council. Redistricting is fundamentally a partisan political process. The Washington commission helps balance the power between the two major political parties of the time–but it does not remove politics from the equation. Consider that the commissioners receive only a small per diem for their time and effort, including many hours of listening to citizen testimony. I pose that there exists no completely disinterested, non-partisan, Solomonic mortal willing to serve in such a position. 

The Spokane County Redistricting Commission is modeled after the WA State Commission. The details are specified in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) by law passed by the WA State legislature in 2018 (which subsequently withstood a legal challenge in the WA State supreme court). RCW 36.32.053 details the qualifications to serve as a county redistricting commissioner and RCW 36.32.054 specifies the function of the commission. One key difference between the State and County commissions: If the County Redistricting Commission deadlocks 2 to 2 the decision falls (or rises, I suppose) to the WA State Redistricting Commission, NOT to the State supreme court. The members of the Spokane County Redistricting Commission have been chosen, but the choosing received little media attention. Democrats have chosen Spokane attorney and community advocate Natasha Hill, and Brian McClatchey, Director of Policy and Government Relations for the Spokane City Council. The Senate Republican appointee is Robin Ball and the Republican House of Representatives appointee is James McDevitt. Mr. McDevitt is a former U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington (2000s). Earlier, he spent two and half years on Slade Gorton’s staff (late 1970s) when Gorton was Washington State Attorney General. After his retirement as U.S. Attorney in 2010, McDevitt interrupted his retirement with a four month stint as interim chief of the Spokane Police. Robin Ball is the owner and active manager of Sharp Shooting Indoor Range and Gun Shop on North Freya just north of Trent. Ms. Ball a business woman, a former chairwoman of the Spokane County Republican Party, and an ardent promoter of the Second Amendment. It is hard to think of a more partisan local Republican than Ms. Ball. As of this writing the four appointees have yet to appoint their fifth (nonvoting) member and chair person.

In the coming weeks and months, especially as the data from the 2020 census becomes available, these two redistricting commissions will gear up. They need input and observation. For residents of Spokane County the county redistricting commission may bear the most watching as it is charged with the total re-drawing of county voting districts that will affect the governance of the County for years to come. Stay tuned.

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. For background on the proposal and passage of the state law mandating five district-based county commissioners for non-charter Washington counties with a population over 400,000 I recommend Daniel Walters’ December 10, 2020, article in the Inlander entitled “State Rep. Marcus Riccelli keeps remaking Spokane County’s governing bodies — and raising the ire of Commissioner Al French.” 

P.P.S. Redistricting of municipalities, school districts, and fire districts in the State of Washington is not covered under either of the commissions discussed above. Redistricting of these entities proceeds under another set of rules, probably within guardrails set by the the Revised Code of Washington.