Washington should enact changes to rules governing legislative redistricting

// Published May 13, 2011

By Bill Finkbeiner and Krist Novoselic
The Seattle Times

THE U.S. census is under way. This decennial head count of Americans will be put to extensive use with no piece of its corpus going to waste.

Madison Avenue salivates in anticipation of the paper-thin slices of consumer attributes. Sociology professors look forward to digging through data to discover some new subculture in need of their attentions. Bureaucrats grab demographic information to fill an endless stream of bound reports.

But the largest impact on our democracy comes from the party hacks who at this very moment are preparing to carve up our neighborhoods and towns in a process otherwise known as redistricting.

We like to think of ourselves as independent operators, each of us actively participating in the give and take of ideas. The political party duopoly sees us as voting blocs who, when aggregated into precincts and districts, can be counted on to support one party or the other.

Today's political parties have at their disposal sophisticated mapping programs that can overlay demographic and political data on very small cohorts of voters. They use these tools to manipulate district boundaries to include, exclude or share blocs of voters with their goal to tilt a district toward one party or the other.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant said "Privates talk strategy while generals talk attrition." Translated into the political theater this means that a particular policy issue taken by a politician matters less than the "leaning" of his or her district, in some cases shifting election outcomes from the voting booth to the state's redistricting commission.

And who are these redistricting commissioners in whose hands the balance of power lies? In Washington state the voting members are nominated by the two major political parties. The commission does have a nonvoting chair whose job is to solve intractable disputes, but this role is rarely put to use because the lines are drawn with a sort of Cold War detente where each side gives and takes in its best interest.

As loaded as our state's policy is, we have at least avoided many of the more egregious power grabs seen elsewhere. For instance, Washington law demands that district boundaries be drawn with an eye toward keeping communities whole, keeping districts competitive and ensuring a "compact shape."

While this still leaves leeway for the type of high-level gerrymandering that can swing a district, it does keep out the political pillaging that goes on in states where boundaries are drawn by the dominant party in the Legislature. In those cases, they are free to roam inside the broad boundaries set by federal courts but little else constrains their raw lust for heavy power.

Before we break our arm patting ourselves on the back for avoiding the train wreck of other states' redistricting laws, Washington needs to put in place safeguards against the abuse of our imperfect system.

It should start with a ban on the use of voting data during the redistricting process. Commissioners must do their work based only on the considerations prescribed by current law and no others. Some may call that Pollyannaish, but at least it will make the commissioners think twice.

Second, and more important, we should change the makeup of the commission by including those outside the party duopoly, both independent and minor-party representatives. Shining light on this process and introducing dissenting voices will be a big improvement.

Dear reader, it is your democracy and you should be prepared to fight for it. Do so by demanding changes in state law and then attending next year's redistricting commission meetings. Fully informed, you can impact the process and help wrest control of our democracy from the hands of the political parties.