Washington's redistricting commission admitted it failed to meet a midnight deadline to redraw the state's congressional and legislative maps — despite making a show of voting on new maps late Monday following a five-hour meeting in which commissioners negotiated largely out of the public's view.
The failure of the bipartisan panel means the state's election maps for the next decade — beginning with the 2022 midterms — will be in the hands of the state Supreme Court, which will have until April 30 to draw new boundaries.
In a brief joint statement Tuesday, the commission said, "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."
It was a stunning end to Washington's bipartisan redistricting process, which has in the past been lauded by some as a model preferable to the majority party gerrymandering by legislatures in many states.
Commissioners Monday night were clearly going down to the wire. The four voting members in a video conference appeared to take votes at the last possible minute ahead of the 11:59 p.m. legal deadline to approve new maps — and it appeared the panel may have voted on a letter transmitting its ostensible agreements to the Legislature after that deadline.
From their comments in the minutes leading up to the deadline, it didn't appear the four voting commissioners had reached agreement on multiple details of the new political boundaries, but they took two quick votes to approve the maps as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
In their statement, the commissioners — Democrats Brady Walkinshaw and April Sims, and Republicans Joe Fain and Paul Graves — offered no explanation for their rushed show of a public vote Monday night.
With the commission missing its deadline, the mapmaking authority falls to the state's nine-member Supreme Court, throwing a twist in the state's political picture head of the 2022 midterms.
After its votes Monday, the commission immediately adjourned with no comment. The commission's nonvoting chair, Sarah Augustine, said the maps would be posted by morning. "Great job, everybody. Congratulations," she said before ending the session.
The commission canceled a 10 a.m. news conference set for Tuesday.
The commissioners' actions Monday night appeared to violate the state's Open Public Meeting Act, which generally requires public commissions to debate and make decisions in public, said Mike Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
"It clearly seems as is if this was a deliberate attempt to essentially hide the discussions from the public," Fancher said, adding even if the commission somehow obeyed the letter of the law, "it was definitely a violation of the spirit of the law."
While the commission had conducted months of public hearings and outreach, the less-than-transparent redistricting endgame led some political observers to vent on social media after watching the drama.
"If a local government did anything like this the Legislature would spend months scolding every city and county across the state for months. This is a complete joke," said Pierce County Council Chair Derek Young in a tweet.
Andrew Hong, lead organizer for Redistricting Justice for Washington, noted in a statement that commissioners had held most of their discussions behind closed doors even prior to Monday night's finale.
"This, added with the absence of the official maps to review and the post-11:59pm-deadline vote on LD maps, led to an overall confusing meeting for public viewers," he said.
Robert Cruickshank, campaign director for Demand Progress, a progressive advocacy nonprofit, tweeted that he hoped there would be lawsuits "over this appalling, offensive, disrespectful of the public @RedistrictingWA final vote."
After going into a scheduled public meeting via Zoom at 7 p.m. Monday, the commissioners quickly went into closed-door partisan caucuses, with staff or commissioners appearing on video every half-hour to say the private talks were ongoing.
Few updates of substance were announced during the five-hour video conference session, and the new maps were not displayed to the public prior to the vote, with staff saying they'd be made available by Tuesday morning.
The commissioners appeared weary as they periodically appeared on screen on Monday to say they were still working toward agreements.
"My hope is that we work through these last final issues to get to maps we get proud of," Graves said as the deadline ticked closer.
"I know the public is anxious. All the members of this commission are equally dedicated to getting this work done," said Sims during one of the public updates.
By law, at least three of the four had to agree on new political maps by Nov. 15. If they failed, the mapmaking duties would be handed to the state Supreme Court, which would have until April 30 to draw the new maps.
That hasn't happened since the state adopted a constitutional amendment handing redistricting authority to a bipartisan commission after the 1990 census.
In a statement Tuesday morning, state Supreme Court spokesperson Wendy Ferrell said the court "is awaiting further information on the activities of the Redistricting Commission." If the deadline was missed, the court "will create a plan and process for the justices' consideration."
The commissioners did not offer a public explanation Monday night as to whether or how their closed-door discussions complied with the state Open Public Meetings Act.
The once-per-decade redrawing of political boundaries follows the U.S. census, showing which states and communities have gained and lost population. The new maps for the state's 10 U.S. House districts and 49 state legislative districts will be in place for the next decade, starting with the 2022 midterm elections.
Among the issues at stake in the final days of negotiations were whether to draw a majority Latino legislative district in Central Washington, and whether south Seattle neighborhoods should remain paired in the 9th Congressional District with diverse communities in south King County.
While independent or quasi-independent redistricting commissions have grown in popularity, most states still leave redistricting powers in the hands of whichever party controls their legislature, opening the door to blatant partisan gerrymandering and legal challenges.
Nationally, Republicans have a big edge in 2021 redistricting battles, with sole control over drawing of congressional maps in 18 states and legislative maps in 20 states, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice. Democrats have sole control over congressional maps in seven states and legislative maps in nine states.