Southwest Washington voters who took their first chance to weigh in on the state's redistricting process Monday evening found that many residents, regardless of political affiliation, want the same thing: competition.
Of the 35 people who testified remotely before the Washington State Redistricting Commission, around half lamented that their districts are too partisan. They asked that commissioners redraw the region's electoral boundaries in a way that would increase the minority party's power.
"If your politics don't align with your district's, then your voice isn't heard," said Cynthia Gardner, a resident of the 49th Legislative District encompassing west Vancouver. "Sometimes the opposing party doesn't even put up a viable candidate."
She encouraged the commissioners to redraw the maps "in a way that encourages electoral competition. I realize this isn't always possible, but it should be better than it currently is."
Several Republicans living in the 49th complained that the district, as currently drawn, doesn't give them a chance at the ballot box. Voters in the district have exclusively elected Democrats since 2004.
"It's impossible for anyone to run as a Republican and even have a chance," said GOP voter and 49th District resident Greg Seifert.
That sentiment, which re-emerged over and over Monday evening, wasn't exclusive to any one party or district. Carrie Parks, a resident of the Republican-dominated 17th Legislative District, stressed that her suburban neighborhood is unfairly lumped together with more rural areas north of Vancouver. She doesn't share common interests with most of her fellow constituents, she said.
"I don't feel like I'm getting represented adequately, and those representatives do not bother to speak with us," Parks said. "I would like to see the rural parts kept together and the suburban parts kept together."
Monday's public hearing was for residents of the 3rd Congressional District, encompassing Clark, Lewis, Pacific, Wahkiakum, Cowlitz, Skamania and Klickitat counties, as well as a small slice of Thurston County. It was the sixth such event in a virtual tour across the state.
The four voting members of the Washington State Redistricting Commission and one nonvoting commission chair are collecting testimony from the public as they endeavor to redraw the state's election map boundaries. The new maps will affect districts from the congressional level all the way down to the precinct level.
Redistricting occurs just once a decade, in conjunction with the U.S. Census, to ensure that electoral districts align with their current population.
Washington has 10 congressional districts and 49 legislative districts. It's unlikely that the number of districts will change this year, but the boundaries that divide them almost certainly will.
According to state law, commissioners must aim to keep districts "convenient, contiguous, and compact." They're also instructed to draw boundaries in a way that keeps "communities of interest" together — that includes formal municipalities like cities or counties, but also more amorphous social groups like a specific community of color. The law also instructs commissioners to draw maps in a way that will "encourage electoral competition."
It's an enormous task, often with conflicting interests.
"In essence, commissioners have to create a new puzzle out of the state," said Commission Chair Sarah Augustine. "Every time a boundary is moved, it creates a cascade of changes in surrounding districts."
Voters in Washington's 3rd Congressional District saw a shift after the new map was certified in 2011; once a swing district, the updated boundary shaved off majority-Democrat areas near Olympia and added Republican-leaning areas of Klickitat County, locking in a friendlier situation for the GOP. The congressional seat hasn't flipped since.
Southwest Washington includes the 2nd, 14th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 49th legislative districts. Most were discussed by the public Monday evening.
Asking for changes
A frequent target of criticism was the shape of the 18th Legislative District. The district is a sprawling, upside-down Y-shape that stretches from Felida in the southwest, up past Yacolt to the North Fork Lewis River in the north, and east to encompass Camas and Washougal. The junction between the two legs of the "Y" bisects Battle Ground, dividing the city between the 18th and the 17th districts.
"It (the 18th) is overly large and touches every municipality in Clark County," Washougal resident Catherine Morton Greenlee told the commission. "It needs to get a streamlining."
Commissioners also heard from residents on the west side of the 14th District, which jabs into Clark County but stretches through Klickitat and Skamania counties to western Yakima County.
Skamania County resident Joe Kear said he doesn't have much in common with people from Yakima, and that he feels much more closely aligned with the people and communities in Clark County.
"Currently our representatives are always from the Yakima area," Kear said. "Even though they occasionally visit, we're pretty distant from them."
The current boundary also splits the Yakama Nation reservation between multiple districts, weakening the tribe's electoral voice.
"I believe strongly that the Yakama Nation should be in one legislative district," said White Salmon resident Michelina Roth.
Augustine offered some information about how the population has shifted in and among the region's electoral districts in the last decade. She reported that the 2nd, 17th and 18th legislative districts currently have too many people, while the 14th, 19th, 20th and 49th will likely need to add voters.
It's also possible that the 3rd Congressional District will need to "absorb some additional residents," Augustine said.
In addition to its outreach hearings, the redistricting commission is accepting testimony via mail, telephone, email and a portal on its website. For information on how to participate, visit redistricting.wa.gov/participate/share-your-feedback.