Districting Committee: Republicans lack legal compass

By On

I don’t know who is giving the Republicans on the Whatcom County Districting Committee legal advice, but they need to fire their lawyer.

The Republicans stumbled badly in the first substantive meeting of the committee on Feb. 22, invoking a legal argument that conservatives already tried unsuccessfully last summer. Republican committee members wanted to squelch the Democrats’ proposal for five new County Council districts by claiming they were illegal. Turned out they were no more illegal in February than they had been in September, when a Skagit County judge let them pass on to the November ballot.

The progressives’ five districts won the vote in November, and—crucially—a rough outline of what the map should look like was part of the ballot measure. This has been the linchpin of Democrats’ argument all along: Our version of the map, or something close to it, has the most legal standing. It is now a part of the county charter, thanks to voter approval.

Also, it meets the requirements of state law, the Democrats say:

  • Each district is equal in population
  • Each district is compact
  • Each district is geographically contiguous (not broken into pieces)
  • The districts aren’t gerrymandered. As the state puts it, “population data may not be used for purposes of favoring or disfavoring any racial group or political party.”
  • Districts shall “to the extent possible,” preserve “communities of related and mutual interest.”

That “communities of interest” language is wide enough to drive a semi truck through, and Republicans are trying to do that, all the way down Mount Baker Highway from Glacier to Bellingham.

At least you can get from Glacier to Bellingham in a big rig.

At the most recent meeting, on Monday, Feb. 29, Republicans Brett Bonner and Mark Nelson argued the Democrats’ version of a new five-district map for the county was illegal because you couldn’t drive from one part of a district to the other without leaving the district.

Only problem was, state law doesn’t require county districts to be driveable in this way. (See bullet points above.)

This prompted Nelson to conclude that the committee shouldn’t be arguing this point but should just do it.

“It’s not worth arguing about, especially when we could all be home petting our dogs,” Nelson said.

While Republicans are shopping for new adivsors, maybe they could get a member of the conservative majority from the 2015 Charter Review Commission to explain why conservatives wanted to change county council elections in the first place. The commission’s aim was to give rural residents representation by rural councilors.

Rural conservatives on the commission accomplished this by putting their successful district-only voting measure on the November ballot. Conservatives figured that rural District 2, which includes Lynden, and mostly rural District 3, which includes Ferndale and Blaine, would be more likely to elect a conservative if the votes were only counted within the district and not countywide.

Conservatives were willing to write off District 1—south Bellingham and the south county—as a lock for progressive candidates.

The progressive response was to put the five-district proposal on the ballot, intending to create a two-district Bellingham enclave and three rural districts.

Republicans on the Districting Committee have strayed from the path blazed by their conservative forbears on the Charter Review Commission and have decided that all five districts should include an incorporated city. They also included a piece of Bellingham in four of the districts in their proposed map, which they introduced on Feb. 29. (Nelson had proposed a five-piece pie with a slice of Bellingham in every district, but his fellow Republicans rejected the idea.)

“I really fret as a 73-year resident of Whatcom County at the increasing urban-rural friction,” Nelson said. “I think our map goes a long way towards trying at least to have urban centers in each one of the districts.”

Conservative charter review commissioners last year weren’t fretting over urban-rural friction. They were purely and simply trying to change the system to boost rural representation.

Republicans on the Districting Committee, meanwhile, are rewriting the rules to suit their not-yet-clear intentions. Nelson said the Republicans were following the “CCF” rule, as if that were a thing: compact, contiguous (in the sense of driveable) and “fair.” While fairness is written in the state law such that races or political parties should not be disadvantaged, the Republican version of fair is about incorporated cities in every district—a rule that has no law to serve as its base.

Republicans are also keen on stretching the Bellingham districts so they touch Lake Whatcom because that’s where city residents get their water. This would be a version of the “communities of interest” argument. People who live on the lake are interested in Lake Whatcom for obvious reasons, and city residents are interested in the lake because it comes out of their faucet. It remains to be seen whether this argument can stand up to the loss of compactness; the Republicans’ Lake Whatcom-central Bellingham district is stretched into something only a little thicker than a snake.

Are both sides trying to get away with political gerrymandering? Republicans made a good point when they challenged the Democrats’ map for including Chuckanut Drive and Glacier in the same district. It’s hard to picture the community of interest that would result from putting the likes of former Whatcom Tea Party officer Ellen Baker in the same room with Frank James and other members of Chuckanut’s liberal, anti-coal elite.

The committee’s map-drawing master, Western Washington University math department chair Tjalling Ypma, came up with two maps, scenarios “C” and “D,” after the Feb. 29 meeting to reflect what the Democrats want, map C, (what Ypma calls a strict interpretation of the county ordinance), and the concerns raised by Republicans, map D. (Ypma had presented scenarios “A” and “B” on Feb. 29.)

At this point, Ypma, who will ultimately draw the map to be voted on by the committee, is leaning heavily toward the Democrats.

“I have some severe problems with the map that you’ve proposed,” Ypma told the Republicans, “because it seems to me to conflict with my interpretation of the ordinance in so many ways.”

Republicans appealed to the Democrats to negotiate toward compromise on the map. Bonner strongly hinted that refusal to do so would result in a lawsuit from Republicans.

“We live here. We know the dynamics,” Bonner said. “For us to just sit here and not propose solutions and work together to try and find common ground—I certainly do not want to get to the end of this process and go into this uncharted legal territory where we can’t agree on something.”

Democrat Lisa McShane (full disclosure: She's the wife of my employer, Dan McShane) said this was not a situation where negotiations are called for.

“We’re charged with implementing what the voters asked for. … We can’t compromise the voter intent,” she said.

The committee meets again at noon on Monday, March 7, in the County Council conference room, suite 105 of the courthouse at 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham. If you show up a little late, be aware the meeting might move to the council chambers in the same building.

CORRECTION: The “geographically contiguous” requirement in state law for county districts was missing from the original version of this story.

About Ralph Schwartz

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since May 23, 2014

After 13 years in mainstream journalism, Ralph Schwartz left The Bellingham Herald in November 2015. He's now a freelance editor and writer looking for a regular paycheck.

Comments by Readers

Walter Haugen

Mar 07, 2016

A quick glance at the maps indicates Scenario D is more fair. [At least from my macro view and without further research.] The main thing for me is that the City of Ferndale be included in the “coastal” strip, as well as Blaine. Sumas should be in the “foothills” section too, methinks.

Read More...