Vancouver’s John Milem is losing his battle with cancer, and his crusade to make sure that voting district lines are drawn for the people, not for the politicians, came to an end Monday.
That’s when the 76-year-old redistricting activist filed a motion to withdraw his lawsuit to overturn the state’s newly drawn voter boundaries. Milem was diagnosed about four years ago with ocular melanoma and recently learned that the rare form of cancer has spread to his liver. Doctors say he has only a few more months to live, and he said he doesn’t have the energy to continue his redistricting fight.
“The cancer that I have is an extremely aggressive cancer,” Milem said as he sat in his living room Friday afternoon. “I simply don’t have the energy. If I went to sit at the computer to work, within three minutes my head would be down on the desk.”
Milem said he’s disappointed that his case can’t continue, but he’s content with the work he’s been able to accomplish in his lifetime.
“I’m a very, very long-term focused person,” Milem said. “All this effort on my part has been to do good for the state. … I just believe in a person making the contributions he can make.”
Every 10 years, voter district lines in the state are redrawn based on new population information revealed through the census. The Washington State Redistricting Commission finalized the latest boundaries in January based on the 2010 census.
On a volunteer basis, Milem attended nearly all of the commission’s 18 public forums around the state and the commission’s other regular and special meetings in Olympia. Following the conclusion of its work, the commission honored Milem by passing a resolution recognizing him as the equivalent of the redistricting volunteer of the year.
But Milem wasn’t pleased with the new voter boundary plan. Milem’s main complaint is that the state’s redistricting commission failed to redraw the lines in a way outlined by state law and the Washington Constitution.
The current redistricting plan limits political competition and doesn’t best represent the communities of Washington, according to the petition Milem had filed with the state Supreme Court.
The commission also held many of its discussions behind closed doors, he said.
Earlier this year, The News Tribune made a public records request for the emails that were sent between political party leaders, lawmakers and the redistricting commission. The emails revealed that winning elections appears to be a dominant factor at play when voter lines were being redrawn.
“The redistricting commission is simply out of control,” Milem said. He said the commission’s process ensures “the rule by self-perpetuating elite.”
Washington state reformed its redistricting rules in 1983 in attempts to ensure voter boundaries were drawn in a way that best represented the state’s citizens. But nothing really changed because the reforms weren’t enforced, Milem said. In 1992, when the first redistricting took place under those new reforms, citizens should have asked the Supreme Court to enforce the rules when the redistricting commission failed to follow them.
“It’s not enough to get the law passed,” Milem said. “You have to have it enforced, and the only enforcement agency under the constitution is the Supreme Court.”
That’s what Milem said he was trying to accomplish this year.
In February, Milem filed a petition with the state’s Supreme Court to overturn the 2012 redistricting plan. Before the court made any decision, the state’s attorney general stepped in and asked the Supreme Court to at least allow the new voter boundaries to apply to this year’s elections. The court ruled in the attorney general’s favor, and this fall’s election uses those new voter boundaries.
“There’s an old expression: Justice delayed is justice denied,” Milem said. “This is a perfect example of that.”
Milem said that he doesn’t see anyone else taking up his fight after he dies.
“There is no energy in the state for redistricting reform because so many people believe we already have it,” he said. “With the dismissal of my lawsuit, I believe that’s the end for the reform of 1983. I cannot imagine somebody in 2022 doing what I did.”