Seattle Will Be Biggest Gainer in State Legislature Redistricting

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Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. (Credit: Washington State)

When it comes to adding seats in the state legislature, the 2020 election was a wash for Washington Democrats. State Senator T’wina Nobles (D-Fircrest) is an exciting addition, but State Senator Dean Takko (D-Longview) lost his seat, meaning the senate is still 28-21. Democrats can lose three caucus votes and still pass bills (without Republican votes), but not more–doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.

One of those frequent defectors is State Senator Mark Mullet, a center-right Democrat from Issaquah who won re-election by the narrowest of margins–58 votes–over nurse Ingrid Anderson, who was backed by labor and progressive groups. Governor Jay Inslee endorsed Anderson in hopes of bolstering his climate agenda, which Mullet has largely opposed. Inslee also threw his weight behind Nobles, Daniel Smith in the 17th, and Helen Price Johnson in the 10th, who all faced Republican incumbents. Price Johnson led on election night, but late results swung the election to incumbent Ron Muzzall (R-Oak Harbor). Daniel Smith lost by nine points.

While those losses were tough, redistricting could end up swinging these district in Democrats’ favor. The results of the 2020 Census will guide redistricting decisions since every district must be reset to have a nearly identical population once more, as was true in 2011 (using 2010 Census figures). Slow-growing districts will need to expand to capture enough population, and fast-growing districts will shrink in geographic size. In redistricting speak, the slow-growers are “underpopulated,” and the fast-growers “overpopulated.” Since it grew the most by far, Seattle will add representation most of all, carving out nearly half a district from its neighbors with a domino effect that may ripple far into the suburbs.

The 2012 map redrew the 49 districts with each having just over 137,000 residents as of the 2010 Census.
Washington has 49 legislative districts with one senator and two representatives each. The boundaries are shown here overlaid on the 39 counties. (Washington State)
A map of Washington state with the 39 counties and 49 legislative districts indicated.
Here was the 2002 map by way of comparison. (Washington State)

As a baseline, Washington state has grown nearly 14% in the past decade based on preliminary figures. That means a district that has grown 14% is treading water. Beat 14% growth and a district will shrink in geographic size, while falling short of 14% points toward expanding boundaries to take in more population. Seattle grew 25% in the past decade, adding about 152,000 residents–nearly half of King County’s expected gain of about 330,000 and 16% of the state’s total population growth of 931,660, as of April figures from the state Office of Financial Management. The state’s fastest growing district is the 43rd, with the 36th, 37th, 48th, and 1st also near the top, according to a Seattle Times analysis.

Washington state legislative districts in the Puget Sound Region. Stretches from the 22nd in Olympia north to the 38th in Marysville. (State of Washington)
Washington state legislative districts in the Puget Sound Region. (State of Washington)

Other fast-growing regions beyond the Seattle metropolitan area include the Tri-Cities, Thurston County, and Clark County. Nearly everywhere else grew below the state average. Already the least populated county, Garfield appears set to grow smaller still, losing 41 people. Whatcom County grew right near the state average, meaning those boundaries should largely be the same for a big showdown for the state senate seat held by Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) who is a Trump ally and worked on his EPA transition team.

Composed of booming Portland suburbs and exurbs, the 17th District is likely overpopulated, too. Clark County has grown by more than 17% since 2010. The 17th’s boundaries appear likely to contact and jettison the more conservative northern fringes of Clark County. That may be enough to erase the nine-point advantage Republican Lynda Wilson enjoyed in 2020–particularly when paired with a more dynamic candidate running a more exciting campaign. For example, Tanisha Harris’ house race in the 17th was six points closer than Smith’s race.

The 10th District spans three counties: Island, Skagit, and Snohomish. Since Island County is slow-growing (9%), the boundaries will likely expand into fast-growing Snohomish County, with 38th District offering some of its territory. Snohomish County has increasingly been fertile ground for Democrats.

A map showing Congressional districts and state legislative districts in a gradient of overpopulated versus underpopulated for purposes of redistricting.
The Seattle Times published an analysis of redistricting on January 4th. (Credit: Mark Nowlin)

If those assumptions are correct, Democrats could finally flip the 10th and 17th.

Another interesting case is the 26th District, where Senator Emily Randall proved a Democrat could win in 2018, but Democrats were unable to follow up that victory by winning the two house seats in 2020. Carrie Hesch came up about 5,000 votes short in unseating Representative Jesse Young (R-Gig Harbor). As a comparatively slow-growing district, it’s likely to expand and most of the surrounding districts lean Democratic, save for the 35th District, which is even slower growing. A redistricted 26th may cement Randall’s reelection and be a helpful nudge for Hesch in a rematch.

While the conservative pundits may not think it possible, the 43rd could become more progressive if its consolidated around Capitol Hill and the U District, dropping single-family-home heavy northern precincts. That could aid a progressive challenge to Senator Jamie Pedersen, who is up for reelection in 2022. Likewise the overpopulated 36th District is likely to lose some northern precincts, potentially aiding a progressive challenge to Senator Reuven Carlyle. Consequently, the boundaries of the 32nd and 46th are likely to shift to the south, catching more of Seattle.

On the flip side is the 19th–the only district where Democrats have ceded ground in the last election with Brian Blake also losing his House seat and canceling out the gain in the 42nd with Alicia Rule’s victory. The underpopulated district has drifting to the Right and isn’t likely to be interrupted even though its borders will need to expand. The neighboring 35th, 20th, and 18th districts are all Republican-held.

Angie Homola stands next to Puget Sound, a ubiquitous presence in the 10th, for this campaign photo.
Angie Homola may fare better in a rematch in a redistricted 10th. (Courtesy of Homola Campaign)

State law puts redistricting decisions in the hands of a four-member bipartisan commission with two Democrats and two Republicans selected by leaders of the respective caucuses in the state legislature. The redistricting commission’s decisions could be rushed or pushed back since the United States Census Bureau has struggled to finalize its results due to disruptions from Covid and Trump administration shenanigans.

“The Census Bureau missed its Dec. 31 deadline for delivering state population estimates, citing potential problems with COVID-19 restrictions and with the accuracy of its data,” Jim Brunner wrote in The Seattle Times. “The bureau issued a statement last week saying it hoped to complete its count ‘as close to the statutory deadline as possible,’ probably in early 2021.”

The way Washington does redistricting has drawn criticism, including from the Washington Census Alliance, a coalition of 92 groups pushing for greater representation for marginalized communities, Brunner reported. Washington Census Alliance director Kamau Chege said the focus on partisan interests is leaving communities of color behind. His organization’s goal for this redistricting include consolidating Latino voting power in a legislative district more centered in Yakima, where Latinos are about half the population.

“Chege said the group’s 2021 goals include redrawing Central and Eastern Washington legislative districts that split the lands of the Colville and Yakama Indian tribes. In addition, he pointed to districts in the Yakima area that divide Latino vote strength,” Brunner wrote. “That doesn’t seem to be something we can tolerate moving forward,” said Chege, calling the current maps “a real failure of having an all-white redistricting commission [in 2011].”

The Democrats’ picks for the commission did reflect a desire for more diverse representation. Senate leaders selected former state representative Brady Piñero Walkinshaw–first Latino redistricting commissioner in state history–and House leaders selected Washington State Labor Council Secretary Treasurer April Sims.

“I am honored to be the first woman of color and Black person appointed to serve on Washington’s Redistricting Commission,” Sims said in a statement. “I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to develop a process that is fair, transparent, inclusive, and in line with the values of our state.”

The commission’s map is due November 15th, with the redrawn map set to go into effect in the 2022 midterm election. The state legislature has until the 30th day of the 2022 session to amend the map by a two-thirds vote. The changes can’t be large; the alterations cannot effect more than 2% of the district’s population.

Correction: This article has been updated to include Washington’s 2012 state legislative district map. The previous map drawn in 2002 was the only map included previously.

Population growth by county:

County2010 Population2020 PopulationPop. ChangeGrowth rate
Adams187282045017220.0919
Asotin216232264010170.0470
Benton175177205700305230.1742
Chelan724537966072070.0995
Clallam714047677053660.0751
Clark425363499200738370.1736
Columbia407841851070.0262
Cowlitz10241011050080900.0790
Douglas384314375053190.1384
Ferry755179103590.0475
Franklin7816396760185970.2379
Garfield22662225-41-0.0181
Grant89120100130110100.1235
Grays Harbor727977472019230.0264
Island785068553070240.0895
Jefferson298723219023180.0776
King193124922608003295510.1706
Kitsap251133272200210670.0839
Kittitas409154814072250.1766
Klickitat203182277024520.1207
Lewis754558025047950.0635
Lincoln10570110504800.0454
Mason606996565049510.0816
Okanogan411204313020100.0489
Pacific20920218409200.0440
Pend Oreille13001138508490.0653
Pierce7952259007001054750.1326
San Juan157691734015710.0996
Skagit116901130450135490.1159
Skamania110661222011540.1043
Snohomish7133358305001171650.1642
Spokane471221522600513790.1090
Stevens435314592023890.0549
Thurston252264291000387360.1536
Wahkiakum397842102320.0583
Walla Walla587816258037990.0646
Whatcom201140228000268600.1335
Whitman447765048057040.1274
Yakima243231258200149690.0615
LD Average137236156249190130.1385
Washington state672454076562009316600.1385

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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asdf2

If there’s anything we’ve learned from politics in the last 10-20 years, it’s that it’s all about the parties, not race, as party composition is what really matters in terms of what can get done and who people will vote for.

Maybe back in the 1960’s it was necessary to have a majority black district to get a black representative or a majority Latino district to get a Latino representative. Today, that is simply not the case. Democrats have elected more people of color than ever – including in majority white districts. Even Michigan Republicans have showed a willingness to vote for a black man with a “R” next to his name over a white man with a “D” (John James may have lost, but he came closer than Donald Trump did).

So, by all means, choose district boundaries so that party composition matches party vote share (~60% D, 40% R), but race should have nothing to do with it.

rdpence

Spoken like a Seattleite. East of the mountains, ethnicity matters at the polls. Best example several years ago when appointed Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez was running against an unknown white attorney who didn’t wage a campaign~ but had a good Anglo surname. Anglo guy carried most of those counties but thankfully due to Puget Sound-area voters.

rdpence

“…thankfully *lost* due to Puget Sound area voters.”

Douglas Trumm

How would we know we reached a point that race has nothing to do with it?

It’s not just about winning one election, but a community being able to exercise political power over time. Plus, Congress being “only” ~80% White is hardly going to seem an “all good” stopping point to progressives.

Jules James

No thank you to gerrymandering for ethnicity. “Progressive groups promoting segregation seems a move backward. As for your disparaging remarks about the 2010 Redistricting Commission, who is unworthy by credentials? Deputy Mayor of Seattle? Governor’s Chief of Staff? Chair of Appropriations Committee, Washington State House of Representatives? U.S. Senator? Or the Ph.D chairperson who was the Director of the Advanced Technology Program at the US Department of Commerce? Or do you just automatically cancel all their good governance credentials for being born Caucasian?

Douglas Trumm

Yeah I don’t think reverse racism claims are going to get you very far. The reality is “colorblind” policies tend to advantage white people and entrenched power. History shows us that the much more prevalent use of race in redistricting has been to gerrymander to “crack” Black and Latino communities to dilute their voting share and keep conservatives in power. Ignoring race isn’t a solution to this problem because that’s how you detect there’s a problem in the first place. They may have all been well-meaning White people on the commission, but I think it’s reasonable to criticize party leaders for not selecting commissioners who are Black or Latino until this year.

Daniel Thompson

Washington’s redistricting process and commission, like California’s, is designed to prevent gerrymandering, from both political persuasions, and should be strictly maintained. Creating a district to please Hispanics is no different than gerrymandering a district to protect Republicans. Both are wrong, and 2/3 of state legislatures are now controlled by Republicans after the last elections, and many of those states abuse redistricting. Let’s not follow their path.

I am not sure what adding a seat or two for Seattle will change. The Democrats already have strong majorities and the Governorship. Right now the two biggest issues by far are effectively bipartisan: restarting the economy because otherwise there isn’t the tax revenue for a progressive agenda; and somehow dealing with the eviction moratoria expiration, which some claim could double our homeless population. (The unfinished convention center is another big issue considering the revenue Seattle receives from tourism, and how to refund the unemployment trust fund).

Then there is the poverty in our rural areas progressives rarely consider.

Personally I don’t think Inslee is very serious about his 9% capital gains tax, its constitutionality, and whether it would survive a referendum considering the citizens approved $30 tab fees. He wants a clean fuels bill, but I would rather see a revenue neutral carbon tax that includes all industries, including government, unlike I-1631. These are all eye candy bills, when simply fixing the culverts is still a $3.5 billion expenditure.

Unfortunately at the state and local level the property tax levy and sales tax rate are maxed out, although it looks like state revenue in 2020-21 will be stronger than expected due to the low volatility of a property tax based tax system.

Seattle has some unique issues like bridge repair, transit funding (or underfunding), and homeless. The legislature should give Seattle more flexibility to place tax increases on the ballot, and hopefully the Seattle City Council will be mindful that citizens and businesses can move across the lake, or south to Tacoma which is also growing rapidly, and that ST subarea equity means funding your own projects, although the requirement for uniform subarea tax rates should be abolished..

Two other issues to consider are population growth in Seattle and King Co. has slowed to a trickle, and it isn’t clear what growth will look like post-pandemic, especially considering the long term effects of working from home (the PSRC’s 2050 Vision Statement is predicated on 2018-2019 data and even then predicted most future population growth in Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap Counties), which could skew tax revenue from large urban areas like Seattle that have the highest social costs to surrounding cities where the commuters live, and the deep divisions in King Co. between east and west, that I think in time will lead to east King Co. forming its own county because King Co. is just too big and diverse to remain one county. Seattle may find its biggest opponent in the state legislature will be eastside cities and east King Co.

In any case I don’t think the next two years will be easy for the legislature because costs and expenditures will exceed revenue, and that will continue until the economy picks up, especially the service industry where the shelter in place orders have hit the hardest and employees are often the most vulnerable.

asdf2

I agree, a larger Democratic margin in the legislature increases the odds of new taxes passing, but my intuition that it might have trouble in a referendum was just supported by a recent Crosscut poll – 41% in favor, 54% opposed (https://crosscut.com/politics/2021/01/poll-wa-voters-are-divided-new-taxes-address-covid-19).

rdpence

If you really believe our system is designed to eliminate gerrymandering, I suggest you read this article reporting on our last redistricting go-round 10 years ago — https://www.thenewstribune.com/news/politics-government/article125095439.html
Bottom line, the four very partisan commissioners draw lines first to preserve their incumbents, and second to maximize their party’s ability to win seats. Their products often produce gerrymandered results, a good example being the 11th Legislative District.

asdf2

This doesn’t surprise me in the least, since it is literally impossible to find humans to draw the maps who do not have partisan motivations. Even having computer algorithms are still not in the clear – as long as the algorithms are written by humans, they may still have biases built in which the human programmers are all too happy about.

The best solution I’ve seen proposed (which will probably never happen) is to have a small number of very large districts with multi-winner ranked choice voting. For instance, if a district has 4 winners, any candidate with over 20% of the vote wins. The way the math works, it pretty much guarantees each party’s representation to come very close to their vote share and the district boundaries don’t matter much. It might even be possible to simply have fixed district boundaries based on unchanging geographic features and simply adjust the number of winners in each district after each census, rather than the map boundaries themselves.