When the Washington Legislature last certified new electoral district boundaries in 2011, Southwest Washington saw a major shift in its political norms. This year, it could happen again.
The state's Redistricting Commission is working on a new congressional and legislative map based on the results of the 2020 U.S. census. The process — while a little wonkish — holds tremendous power over the outcome of elections from school boards to the halls of Congress.
The commission will hold a hearing with residents of Washington's 3rd Congressional District from 7 to 9 p.m. on June 14. The district encompasses Clark, Lewis, Pacific, Wahkiakum, Cowlitz, Skamania and Klickitat counties, as well as a small slice of Thurston County.
"The meeting is a chance for people to let the commissioners know they want to make sure election boundaries are drawn in a way that ensures fairness and equity," Alan Unell, who works with Clark County League of Women Voters to educate people on the redistricting process, said in a media release.
In a follow-up interview with The Columbian, Unell said that offering testimony is the best way for residents and interest groups to ensure that their perspective is considered while redrawing the maps.
"The more people that you get involved in solving problems, kind of the better decision you get," Unell said.
The state is home to 10 congressional districts and 49 legislative districts. Those districts are redrawn once every decade to ensure ongoing alignment with population changes. Each congressional district should have around 700,000 people, Unell said, to ensure that the 435 voting members of the House represent roughly equal constituencies.
"We're not uniformly distributed across the state," Unell said.
In 2010, Washington was allocated an additional congressional seat. It's not on track for another one this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Oregon, which saw its population rise 10.6 percent last year, is on track to receive another district. California will lose one.
However, the congressional maps could still change, depending in part on the feedback received in forums like the one scheduled for later this month. Clark County could also see adjustments to its legislative district boundaries — the county currently encompasses the 49th District, the 17th District and the 18th District, and overlaps with small portions of the 14th District and the 20th District.
Residents can register for the June 14 forum by visiting www.redistricting.wa.gov/commission-meetings, selecting the "Public Outreach Meetings" option at the top of the page, and clicking the "Register for Public Comment" box for District 3.
Anyone interested in offering feedback can also participate in the process by offering written testimony online.
The redistricting website also has a brand new feature called "Draw you WA," in which residents can submit maps of their neighborhoods with important community landmarks highlighted — parks, community centers, religious gathering places, shopping centers, etc. — for the commissioners to review.
Under Washington law, the remapping process is supposed to prioritize boundaries that keep communities intact whenever possible.
How the process works
In Washington, Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate each appoint one person to the state's redistricting commission. Those appointees in turn each appoint one other person apiece, and then the four-person group selects a facilitator.
In order to approve a map, three of the four members of the bipartisan commission need to agree, and the commission must submit a proposed map to the Legislature no later than Oct. 15. The Legislature can then pass the map as-is or debate changes, though the Legislature hasn't made changes to the proposed map in at least 30 years, Unell said.
Most states are much more hands-on. In 37 states, legislators redraw the maps themselves, often opening up an opportunity for the majority party to lock in an electoral advantage.
"Sort of like the fox guarding the henhouse," Unell said.
When done incorrectly — or with intentions other than offering constituents fair representation — the outcomes can be unjust, and occasionally illegal. The United States has a long history of gerrymandering, or drawing maps that purposefully disenfranchise groups of people to lock in electoral power.
That disenfranchisement could look like drawing boundaries that concentrate the minority party in as few districts as possible, decreasing their overall representation, or like splitting up a community of color to diminish their voting power within their districts.
"That would break up their ability to have a unified voice on any particular item," Unell said.
Impacts in the 3rd
Over the latter half of the 20th century, Washington's 3rd Congressional District had switched from blue to red and back to blue again. In 2010, it flipped once more — Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler won her first term, narrowly defeating her Democratic opponent in a bid for a seat left vacant by the retiring Democrat incumbent.
A year later, the Legislature certified a new electoral map that locked in a significantly friendlier picture for Republicans in the southwest corner of the state moving forward. The district dropped liberal-leaning areas near Olympia in Thurston County and picked up more voters in conservative Klickitat County to the east.
For Democrats and Republicans, the district redraw amounted to a swap: The change transformed Washington's 3rd into a relatively safe seat for Republicans. A new district, Washington's 10th, picked up those Thurston County voters and became a secure stronghold for Democrats.