Political boundaries for legislative and congressional districts in the Yakima Valley are uncertain after the Washington State Redistricting Commission failed to approve new maps by Monday’s deadline.
The commissioners were unable to adopt a districting plan before midnight, they said in a statement Tuesday.
The late release of the 2020 Census data and technical difficulties created challenges for the commission, the statement said. The commission has had access to the census data since Aug. 12.
It is the first time the state commission has been unable to reach a decision since the system was created nearly four decades ago. The task of drawing new districts will be passed to the Washington Supreme Court, the statement said. The court will have until the end of April to finalize the maps.
The panel’s final deliberation, which lasted about five hours, was held largely out of view of the public. The commissioners met in pairs in political caucus meetings, nonvoting Chairperson Sarah Augustine said during the meeting.
The commissioners are Democrats Brady Piñero Walkinshaw and April Sims and Republicans Joe Fain and Paul Graves. Three out of the four needed to agree on new maps to send to the Legislature.
The failure by the commission to approve the maps leaves lots of questions for voters and representatives in the Yakima area.
State Sen. Jim Honeyford, a Republican representing District 15, said he was disappointed the commissioners couldn’t come to an agreement.
“Redistricting is just a big potential for a power grab,” Honeyford said. “Everybody just wants to get an advantage, and there has to be compromises. Apparently the commissioners were unwilling to compromise.”
Sen. Curtis King, a Republican representing District 14, also said the result is disappointing.
A Latino majority district in the Yakima Valley had come up in discussions this fall as a point of debate among the commissioners.
Democrats Walkinshaw and Sims said an approved map had to include a Latino-voter majority district to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, citing a report from UCLA voting rights project director Matt Barreto. The drastic change to Yakima districts would have displaced a number of current incumbents.
Republicans Fain and Graves commissioned their own legal analysis, saying the change would constitute racial gerrymandering.
Graves, in the brief public discussion period during Monday’s meeting, noted Latino voting in Yakima was one of several hang-ups for the commission.
The city of Yakima and Yakima County have faced voting rights lawsuits in the past decade alleging election systems disenfranchised Latino voters, and made changes as a result.
To the courts
The Washington Supreme Court is now tasked with drawing maps that affect the political landscape for the next decade, beginning with the 2022 midterm elections. The court must finalize maps by April 30.
King said the April deadline is a big problem.
“No one will know what district they’re in, and candidates will have (fewer) than three weeks to file to run for state office,” King said in a statement.
The state’s candidate filing period for 2022 elections will be open from May 16-20, according to the Secretary of State’s website.
The redistricting commission heard public input at meetings and collected submitted comments for months leading up to the start of the mapping process, and continued to hear comments once the proposed maps were released.
The commission also consulted with Indigenous communities across the state, including the Yakama Nation. The Yakama Nation expressed an interest for the Yakama Reservation to be unified in both legislative and congressional districts. Each of the preliminary maps produced by the commissioners kept the Yakama Nation together.
Andrew Hong, lead organizer for Redistricting Justice for Washington, said his organization will be pushing for the court to consider public input.
“Communities turned out, especially in Yakima, in large numbers to the commission’s public outreach meetings,” Hong said. “It’s disappointing to see that all of that organizing and all of the testimony from those communities will perhaps go to waste because the commission failed to draw a map in time.”
He said the group’s priorities remain the same.
“We want to make sure that the Yakama Nation remains fully intact in one legislative and one congressional district,” Hong said. “And we want to make sure that there is a Voting Rights Act-compliant, majority-Latino by citizens voting age population legislative district in Yakima that includes the Yakama Nation in a cohesive district.”
The Yakama Nation did not immediately provide a comment.
Not open to the public
The redistricting commission’s final deliberation Monday night was largely carried out in private. The commissioners entered private caucus meetings in pairs at the start of the public meeting, and provided brief updates every half hour.
The actions have raised questions about possible violations of the state’s Open Public Meeting Act, which generally requires public commissions to debate and make decisions in public.
“It clearly seems as if this was a deliberate attempt to essentially hide the discussions from the public,” Mike Fancher, president of the Coalition for Open Government, told The Seattle Times, adding if even if the commission somehow obeyed the letter of the law, “it was definitely a violation of the spirit of the law.”
The caucus meetings were opportunities for the political caucus members to consult one another while finalizing the map, chair Augustine said during the meeting.
“We were disappointed with the lack of transparency last night,” said Hong with Redistricting Justice for Washington. “Most of the discussions were held behind closed doors despite it being a public meeting.”
The commission appeared to take a vote to approve maps moments before the midnight deadline, but comments made by commissioners before the vote suggested some boundaries were still unresolved. It also appeared that the decision to transmit the final map to the Legislature was made after the deadline.
The maps were not displayed during the meeting or made available Tuesday, and the commission canceled a news conference Tuesday before announcing it did not meet the deadline.