By Andrew Hong and Margot Spindola
Earlier this month, the Washington State Supreme Court declined an opportunity to fix a gross miscarriage of democracy, declining to redraw the state’s political boundaries after the Washington State Redistricting Commission abdicated its authority by submitting their maps a day after the constitutional deadline. With this decision, the supreme court effectively endorsed maps that violate the voting rights of communities of color, turning a blind eye to a process that prioritized partisan advantage over communities’ interest.
Every decade, state and local governments redraw their legislative districts to reflect population shifts revealed by the US Census. The process has the power to reshape the political landscape—granting outsize power to one party, for example—and increase or reduce the power of communities, such as Washington state’s Latino population. This year, the redistricting commission—a hyperpartisan group made up of two Democrats and two Republicans—failed, after hours of closed-door meetings, to reach consensus on new political maps by the November 15 constitutional deadline. Despite this failure, the state supreme court swiftly announced that the maps were fine, disregarding both the contours of the maps themselves and the deeply flawed process that produced them.
This redistricting commission and the courts had a unique opportunity to take in community input and set the boundaries of our democracy in a way that ensures communities’ voices are heard. By that measure, they failed spectacularly.
The court didn’t consider, for example, whether the Commission violated the Open Public Meetings Act when they conducted eleventh-hour negotiations, off camera, to make a decision on a final map plan. Perhaps, they would have considered otherwise if they had seen a memo written by commission staff leaked last week that revealed the commissioners prioritized naked partisan advantage over equitable representation.
Most importantly, the court did not consider how the maps likely violate both state law and the federal Voting Rights Act, by diluting the Latino vote in Yakima County. Amid all the process drama, both the commission and the court failed to consider the impact of these maps on the actual people who live and vote in those districts.
In its effort to remain apolitical, the court gave this two-party commission a political victory: Partisan-driven incumbent protection by way of a voting rights violations for which taxpayers may end up footing the bill in a legal challenge. Throughout this broken process, commissioners ignored requests from communities of color in Western and Central Washington to be kept together to right the wrongs of previous districting failures. And yet the commissioners claimed victory in the name of diversity and representation. When they were called on it, they refused to listen to community input and public testimony.
District maps, as with all government services and entities, should serve the people, not the political establishment. This redistricting commission and the courts had a unique opportunity to take in community input and set the boundaries of our democracy in a way that ensures communities’ voices are heard. By that measure, they failed spectacularly.
In many ways, this is nothing new. Communities of color all across our state, at every level of government, have always been tossed around like a political football. In Seattle, I-5 splits the Chinatown-International District in half. And after its construction, the city zoned the historically Asian-American and Pacific Islander neighborhood with downtown and Pioneer Square—not accounting for the fact that our residential and industry interests more closely align with Beacon Hill and South Seattle.
The historic marginalization of the AAPI community in the South End led to a petroleum pipeline and airplane traffic through Beacon Hill and their attendant health effects brought on by pollution. These careless drawings and the continued treatment of our communities as an afterthought led, and will continue to lead, to the rapid displacement and gentrification of those very same communities.
In the Tri-Cities, Latino communities have been thriving for decades, but predominantly Latino neighborhoods—including and especially the entire city of Pasco—have systematically been carved up to maintain white electoral power. Franklin County is in the middle of a redistricting lawsuit right now because three white county commissioners purposefully created municipal districts for white candidates to win. They aren’t interested in serving Latino communities.
This issue extends beyond the county level. At every level of government in our state, Latinos lack representation, leading directly to the historic and generational divestment from our communities. Without language services and basic human service investments, our families effectively still live in the ’90s—isolated and out of time. The first step to solve these issues is political district lines that enable fair representation for communities of color, something the Redistricting Commission failed to deliver.
The commission’s failure to create community-driven maps and to transparently engage with the public highlights the inherently dysfunctional, anti-democratic nature of a partisan commission. The court’s refusal to weigh in reinforces the idea that a process that disproportionately harms communities of color is totally normal. As young leaders of color from South Seattle and Tri-Cities, we understand what’s at stake and the reforms needed to fulfill the promise of our democracy. We need to fight for maps that work for us. So when the legislature approves the plan (as we anticipate they will), we will sue, and the court will have to take up this voting rights case anyway.
Latinos should be able to elect a candidate of their choice in Yakima and Franklin County. Pierce, South King, and Snohomish should have districts that keep communities of color together, not divided. Our people deserve to be heard, and our people deserve to see Section Two of the Voting Rights Act upheld in these maps. Even if the Commission chose not to engage with communities of color in good faith and the state supreme court decided to not call their question, we’ll make sure they have to. Our democracy depends on it.