Redistricting process could use a few changes

Results from the 2010 census, which is under way in South Sound, will be key for the redrawing of the boundary lines for legislative and congressional districts.

As flawed as Washington’s redistricting system is, it has to be better, and less cumbersome, than what’s going on in California right now.

Washington, California and all other states are legally required to redraw political boundaries every 10 years, after the census. The new lines on the map recognize population shifts and seek to create political districts that are equal in size to ensure that the tradition of “one man, one vote,” is upheld.

Much is at stake in the redistricting process. This year, for instance, there’s a good chance that Washington will gain a 10th congressional district. Determining how to carve 10 districts out of 9 will make for great political theater with Democrats and Republicans trying to outmaneuver one another.

Shift a line here or there in the redistricting process and a district that routinely elected Democrats can suddenly lean Republican, or be a so-called swing district where neither of the two primary parties have a clear majority of voters in their camp.

It’s not surprising then, that the redrawing of boundaries becomes very partisan and very heated very quickly. Lawmakers in this state used to have donnybrooks over redistricting plans.

That changed in 1983 when 61 percent of Washington voters approved the 74th amendment to the state constitution. The amendment created the Washington State Redistricting Commission.

Partisan leaders in the state House and Senate name two Democrats and two Republicans to the commission. Those four voting members then name a fifth, nonvoting, person who serves as chairman and presides over public hearings held across the state. It takes three out of four votes to approve new congressional and legislative district boundaries.

Given the partisan nature of the work and how much is at risk, that’s easier said than done.

But Washington’s system, which has taken the Legislature out of the process almost entirely, surely is less cumbersome than what’s going on in California.

In 2008, voters there approved Proposition 11, which creates a 14-member redistricting commission that redraws legislative district boundaries. The Legislature still sets the boundaries for congressional districts.

Some 30,720 Californian’s applied for the 14 redistricting commission seats by the Feb. 16, deadline. The list will be trimmed to 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans and 20 people who identify with neither party. Lawmakers then get to strike a limited number of people they don’t want from the list and from the remaining pool eight names will be drawn at random. Those eight then select the remaining six members of the commission.

Washington’s system is far simpler, but it’s not perfect.

The last redistricting commission was a miserable failure.

The five commissioners started their work early in 2001, but missed their Dec. 15 deadline to redraw district boundaries. They did agree on legislative boundaries a day later — actually just a little more than four hours after the deadline — but could not agree on congressional district boundaries until Jan. 1, 2002. Lawmakers simply changed the deadline to allow the redistricting plans to stand.

The redistricting program, which is housed in the office of Secretary of State Sam Reed, is assembling voting patterns and maps for each of the 6,600 voting precincts in the state to give the new commission members baseline information when they begin their work in January. The commissioners will send their new boundaries to the 2012 Legislature, which can only make minor modifications to the commissions’ maps, and then only with a two-thirds vote. The new districts will be in effect for the 2012 election cycle.

Washington’s system is not ideal. For example, the last redistricting commission did not have a single minority or resident of Eastern Washington. And it would speed things along if the chairman — a true nonpartisan — had a vote.

While imperfect, this state’s redistricting commission is far superior to the old system where 147 lawmakers did everything in their power to protect their own political hide. We just wish the final results were driven by the public, not the politicians.