Redistricting Commission Reaches Out to the Public

Late census data provides a unique window for public input on the legislative redistricting process.

The commission has created a “get-to-know-us” video at
The commission has created a “get-to-know-us” video at

If “unprecedented” described much of 2020, it also describes the opportunity for public input this year as Washington State redraws its legislative boundaries.

Census data will not be available until August 15 — the pandemic delayed results that historically have been available by April. Sarah Augustine, the nonpartisan, nonvoting chair of the Washington Redistricting Commission, said the delay has fundamentally changed how the commission is working. Rather than drawing maps based on census data and then asking for public input, the commission is asking for public input before drawing the maps.

Pierce County Councilman Derek Young said, “In 2011 the Key Peninsula came close to being moved to the Mason County legislative district. It was blocked by former 26th Legislative District Representative Tom Huff who was on the redistricting commission.”

Redistricting — the process of drawing new maps that determine legislative boundaries — takes place every 10 years as the census data documents population changes in the nation. It is the work of the Washington State Redistricting Commission to draw up new plans for both the 10 congressional districts and the 49 state legislative districts. Pierce County will redraw its district lines as well, but that process is done at the local level.

District boundaries have shifted over the decades, and both population shifts and political partisanship have played roles. In 1983, after decades of legislative wrangling and lawsuits over updated district maps, Washington established a redistricting commission. It is one of only seven states to have one.

There are five commission members. Two Republicans and two Democrats are each appointed by their respective caucus leaders from the state house and senate. The commissioners appoint a nonvoting, nonpartisan chair who then hires staff to support its work.

Augustine, the commission chair, is the executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima and Kittitas counties and has worked as a mediator for nearly two decades.

“Redistricting is one of the most important ways to engage in democracy. The lines that are drawn will define who votes together as a block, how you vote for a representative, and which representatives you have the option to vote for,” she said.

The commission began meeting in January and has been holding community outreach meetings since May. Lisa McClean, hired as executive director of the commission, said that as of June about 80% of staff time had been spent on community outreach — working to get input on what is important to community members, how they define their community boundaries, and what their concerns are.

“Each of the commissioners is rooted in a community, but none of them are rooted in every community,” Augustine said. “It is impossible for four individuals to know the needs and interests of every community in the state. So the public is crucial and key in informing those four individuals about their needs and interests.”

Community members can participate in scheduled virtual meetings or via mail, email, phone, video or recording. In addition, the commission has introduced a mapping tool that allows participants to draw their communities. Once the census data is available in September, individuals can submit proposals for district boundaries as well.

Staff is also working to organize public input. “The goal is to make the information knowable and useful, to synthesize and reflect back to the public,” Augustine said. “We want to make data-driven decisions.” Summaries of public commentary are available on the commission’s website.

The process is bipartisan by design, but it is not nonpartisan, as the voting members are all political appointees. At least three of the four appointed commissioners must agree to the redistricting plan and present it to the Washington State Legislature by Nov. 15. The Legislature has 30 days to review the plan and any amendments must pass with a two-thirds vote and involve less than a 2% population variation.

Although the final census data is not available yet, information from the 2019 American Community Survey provided estimates about how district populations have shifted. The 26th Legislative District probably has about 11,000 fewer people than it should, and the 6th Congressional District is short by 35,000. Differential growth in the state has been in the greater Seattle area, King and Snohomish counties. Growth in eastern Pierce County outpaced that in the western part, which will necessitate a shift in district boundaries.

By law the districts should have populations as nearly equal as is practicable, coincide with the boundaries of local political subdivisions and communities of interest, divide counties and municipalities as little as possible, and be “convenient, contiguous and intact.”

“It is like a jigsaw puzzle,” McLean said. She said that the average size of legislative districts has gone from 137,000 to 157,000 and the average size of congressional districts has grown from 670,000 to 770,000. The commission is seeking input from the public as well as from legislators to help determine district boundaries.

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