Senate OKs bill increasing redistricting plan transparency

February 3, 2022 GMT

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The Washington state Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved a measure that seeks to create more transparency around the state’s redistricting process following last year’s chaotic final hours of work that led to complaints its deliberations may have violated open meetings laws.

The bill requires the redistricting commission to make plans publicly available 72 hours prior to voting, and that any amendments be debated and voted on publicly.

It also requires that following any adoption of amendments, at least 24 hours must pass before a vote on final approval. Whatever plan is submitted by the commission to the Legislature must also include maps and census unit descriptions.

“Public confidence in our redistricting process is going to be enhanced by this transparency,” said Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen, the bill’s sponsor. “Because the consequences of a 10-year decision on redistricting are so serious for the state, I think it’s worth making sure that we have that time to sit and examine everything carefully.”

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The measure now heads to the House for consideration.

The redistricting commission consists of four voting members — two Democrats and two Republicans — appointed by legislative caucus leaders.

By law, at least three of the four had to agree on new political maps by Nov. 15. After going into a scheduled public meeting via Zoom at 7 p.m. the night of the deadline, the commissioners went into closed-door caucuses, which drew criticism. They then voted hastily just before midnight without showing the maps they just voted on, and later acknowledged they had missed the deadline.

Commissioners defended their work creating maps for the 10 U.S. House districts and 49 state legislative districts, saying they were hampered by a late 2020 census, limitations caused by the coronavirus pandemic and technological issues such as crashing computers.

In December, the state Supreme Court said the plan adopted by the Washington Redistricting Commission “substantially complied” with statutory deadlines and declined to adopt a new redistricting plan for the state.

The new political maps have drawn multiple lawsuits.

Two weeks ago, a Latino civil rights organization and others filed a federal lawsuit, saying that the new political maps intentionally dilute Hispanic voters’ influence.

The legal action in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington targets state Legislative District 15 in Yakima, which is majority Latino.

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Last month, the state Supreme Court declined to hear two legal challenges, filed separately by the Washington Coalition for Open Government and Arthur West of Olympia. The suits, which sought to bypass the lower courts and get a direct review from the higher court, argued the legislative and congressional maps must be invalidated because commissioners violated open meeting laws, negotiated secretly for hours before the Nov. 15 deadline and hurriedly voted on new boundaries that were not publicly displayed or debated.

The coalition is still pursuing its case before Thurston County Superior Court.

Washington lawmakers have until Feb. 8 to make any changes, which would need to be approved by a two-thirds vote in each chamber. Later Wednesday, the House, on an 88-7 bipartisan vote, passed a resolution adopting the maps while making some technical changes recommended by county auditors. That resolution now heads to the Senate for consideration.