OPINION: Gerrymandering a critical issue in 2021

'Speak Up Schools' offer chance to make a difference in WA

A 2019 Center for American Progress report on the state of gerrymandering across the United States found that unfair, partisan redistricting practices had resulted in the election of 59 Congressional representatives who would not have won their seats based on their area’s popular vote. 

The report used the state of Michigan’s elections from 2012 to 2016 as an example, noting that, although more than half of Michigan’s voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates in that state’s Michigan Senate, Michigan House of Representatives and U.S. House of Representatives races, Republican candidates received 56 percent of the seats in the Michigan Senate, 65 percent of the seats in the state’s delegation to Congress and 69 percent of the seats in the Michigan Senate. 

Writing about the report, the Center’s director of campaign finance and electoral reform said this of widespread gerrymandering, or the manipulation of electoral constituency boundaries in favor of one political party: “The inescapable conclusion is that gerrymandering is effectively disenfranchising millions of Americans. This should be considered a critical situation.”

We agree. 

Luckily, in 2021, Washingtonians have a chance to learn more about this state’s practice of drawing electoral districts and to possibly help avoid or remedy gerrymandering situations. 

Washington state established a five-member independent commission, composed of four voters appointed by the majority and minority leaders of the Washington State Senate and the Washington House of Representatives, as well as a fifth, non-voting member appointed by those four commissioners to act as the group’s chairperson. 

The commission meets every 10 years and uses new U.S. Census data to draw new district boundaries. The state’s constitution states that the legislative districts “should be contiguous, compact, and convenient and follow natural, geographic, artificial or political subdivision boundaries” and “must not purposely draw plans to favor or discriminate against any political party or group.”

State legislators are appointing members to the 2021 Washington State Redistricting Commission this month and the commission members have until Jan. 31 to appoint a chairperson. 

After counties and local jurisdictions receive new population data from the Census Bureau — likely in April — local officials will adopt precinct boundary changes in early May. The Redistricting Commission is expected to send a new redistricting plan to the state Legislature by Oct. 15, 2021. 

Washingtonians who wish to learn more about the state’s redistricting process or have their voice heard by the Redistricting Commission should pay attention to the nonpartisan League of Women Voters’ nationwide redistricting campaign, People Powered Fair Maps, which is dedicated to creating fair voting districts across the United States. 

In Washington, the campaign is implementing “Speak Up Schools” with the goal of training interested residents about the redistricting process and having more than 2,000 Washingtonians testify before the 2021 Washington State Redistricting Commission. 

The Washington League will host up to 15 Speak Up Schools across the state between February and April. 

The 2021 Washington State Redistricting Commission will be hosting public input meetings during the spring and fall of 2021 in every congressional district. In the past, testimony at these hearings has not been coherent, powerful or compelling and make it difficult for commissioners to take action on the input,” the League explains on its Speak Up Schools website. “The League wants to change this in 2021. We will provide training and encourage a wide range of people to testify. These workshops will share tools to help participants find their own voice and build effective, personal testimony.”

After four years of hyper-divisive politics, studies show that Americans have internalized these divisions, with 77 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans saying the current political climate “is a significant source of stress” in their lives, according to a July 2020 Harris Poll survey conducted for the American Psychological Association

The solution? Connecting with others, even if they don’t agree with our political views 100 percent — or even 10 percent — of the time. 

In an Oct. 15, 2020, Philadelphia Inquirer article about the effects of divisive politics on Americans’ mental health, Philadelphia psychologist Keren Sofer explained that our limbic systems cannot tell the difference between stressors, including political stress. 

“All your base functions are disrupted,” Sofer said. “People aren’t sleeping, they aren’t relaxing. People are vigilant all the time. And when we’re more vigilant, we’re less trusting of others. That undermines our ability to reach out. It’s a vicious cycle.”

We have to begin to cast aside political divisions for our own health and well being. Efforts like the League’s Speak Up Schools, which will help educate Washingtonians across the political spectrum using facts and the basics of civil discourse, are an excellent starting point. 

To learn more, visit lwvwa.org/speakup.