State Watch

Washington redistricting commission fails, punts maps to Supreme Court

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For the first time since it was created in 1990, the independent commission tasked with redrawing Washington State’s congressional and legislative district lines on Monday failed to agree to final terms on proposed map lines.

Commissioners had until midnight Monday to agree on final district lines, and they debated over boundaries until the last possible minute. The commission took a vote at midnight to approve new lines, though they did not release those lines publicly.

By Tuesday morning, a planned press conference to highlight the new maps was scrubbed, and commissioners admitted defeat. 

“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,” the commission said in a statement Tuesday. 

The commissioners blamed the late release of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic and litigation over decisions made by the Trump administration.  

Several other states have either sought court orders to extend their own redistricting deadlines or blown through stated goals. But the Washington state commission was constrained by state law that now gives authority to the state Supreme Court to craft the lines. The court has until April 30 to draw new lines.

Washington state sends ten members to the House of Representatives. Currently, the delegation includes seven Democrats, all from west of the Cascade Mountains, and three Republicans, two of whom represent districts in the less populous, more rural eastern half of the state. 

Washington’s redistricting commission is one of the oldest in the country, and until this year the group of two Democrats and two Republicans, chaired by a nonpartisan and nonvoting fifth member, had always reached agreement on district map lines.

Under the commission’s rules, each commissioner offers a draft map. In recent decades, one commissioner from each party has focused on legislative map lines, while another focuses on congressional district lines.

The boundaries proposed by the two Democratic commissioners this year both would have created three districts that were solidly Democratic, four more that leaned heavily toward their side, and three safe Republican seats. One Republican commissioner, former state Sen. Joe Fain (R), proposed drawing five Democratic districts, three safe Republican seats and two that leaned slightly to the right. The other, former state Rep. Paul Graves (R), proposed drawing four safe Republican seats and a fifth that leaned to the GOP. 

Final decisions now left up to the Supreme Court will be decided by nine justices who must run for statewide election, but who do so on a nonpartisan basis. 

Five of the nine justices were appointed to open seats by Washington state governors — two by former Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) and three by the current governor, Jay Inslee (D). 

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