The independent committee tasked with dividing Spokane County into five commissioner districts late Tuesday evening presented draft maps that give the public a first glimpse of what the county’s political boundaries could look like for decades to come.
Each of the four maps offers a different option for dividing the county. One seems to have a clear preference for the Republicans and would likely create a 4-1 majority of GOP commissioners, another could give Democrats the chance to put three commissioners and two cards are somewhere in between.
“I thought everyone did a great job adding variety to the community,” said committee member Robin Ball.
Spokane County currently has three commissioners – Republicans Josh Kerns, Al French and Mary Kuney. These commissioners run in district-specific primaries, but are elected by voters across the district in parliamentary elections.
This regulation must change due to a law that the state legislature passed in 2018. The county will transition to five commissioners with elections in 2022, and those commissioners will only be elected by voters in their own counties.
Before the move to five commissioners can take place, the county must be converted to five districts. It is the job of the Independent Redistricting Committee to redraw the district boundaries. The five-member committee consists of two people appointed by local state Democratic legislators, two by local Republican lawmakers, and a non-voting chairman.
How the committee draws the new lines will have a major impact on the future of the district, because the new districts will have a say in the political composition of the commissioners for decades.
State and federal laws prohibit the Redistribution Committee from drawing lines that favor a political party. But creating new districts is an inherently political process, and based on the four draft maps, the four voting committee members face difficult negotiations in the coming weeks.
By the first week of October, the committee must reduce the four cards to one. After that, the committee has to agree on a final map by October 23rd.
Committee members have expressed their desire to agree on a map at local level. If they cannot agree, the redistribution decision will go to a state-level committee. If the state committee cannot agree on a card, the decision is left to the courts.
“We’re much better off in Spokane County solving the problem,” said Ball, a former leader of the county’s Republican Party. .
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Each of the four members of the voting committee drew a draft card. According to state law, the districts within the cards must meet certain criteria.
Districts cannot differ in population by more than 10%, and ideally the population differences will not exceed 5%. In the case of Spokane County, each district must have approximately 108,000 residents. All map designs meet population requirements.
Districts also need to be compact, meaning they can’t be serpentine or bizarre shaped. The card designs meet the compactness requirement.
As far as possible, the committee members must draw areas delimited by natural boundaries. And districts should have interest groups.
There is no concise definition of interest groups, but they can include neighborhoods, school districts, and areas with different cultural or racial identities.
According to the law, districts cannot be attracted to favor a racial group or political party.
Card A is perhaps the easiest and probably the one the Democrats will fight hardest.
It bundles the center of Spokane into one district bounded by Wellesley Avenue to the north and 29th Avenue to the south.
The eastern edge of the district is not a straight line, but for most of its length it ends just before the Spokane-Spokane Valley border. The district primarily uses the Spokane River as its western edge.
Map A divides the rest of the county into four rectangular quadrants.
US Route 195 divides southern Spokane County into two districts. The Southeast District encompasses most of the southern half of the Spokane Valley, while the Southwest District includes Airway Heights, Medical Lake, and Cheney.
US Route 2 divides the two northern boroughs. The northwest is geographically smaller but encompasses a significant portion of northern Spokane. The northeast district comprises about half of the Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake.
Analysis by The Spokesman Review based on voting trends suggests that Card A would likely spawn four Republican district commissioners and one Democratic commissioner.
Brian McClatchey, one of two Democratic-appointed redistribution committee members and the director of politics and government relations for Spokane City Council, said Card A was unfair and a non-starter. It gives Republicans a blatant advantage and would “bake in a Republican majority for a long, long time,” he said.
“I don’t know of any other way to see it,” he said. “Scenario A is really trying to get as many Democrats as possible into a single district in the heart of the city.”
Democrats will likely like Card B. It appears to guarantee a seat for the Democratic commissioner and also includes two potential swing districts.
In order for the Democrats to win multiple commissioner seats, the new commissioner districts will likely have to break Spokane into at least two hearty chunks. Card B does that.
Map B’s District 1 includes Spokane west of US Route 2 and south of Interstate 90. It also includes Airway Heights.
Northwest Spokane, east of US Route 2, falls into District 2, which runs south to 29th Avenue.
District 3 of Map B is one of the most interesting districts in the four map designs. It includes South Hill and also includes Cheney, two areas of the county that are strongly democratic.
Under Map B, most of the rural areas of the county fall into two large districts. One covers the northern end of the county as well as a sizable portion of the Spokane Valley. The other is huge and covers all of southern Spokane County.
Like Card B, Card C would likely guarantee a Democratic commissioner and could include two swing districts.
It divides the city of Spokane into three large parts.
One district spans northwest of Spokane and uses the Spokane River as both its western and southern borders. The Nevada and Hamilton Roads act as the eastern boundary.
Another district includes East Spokane and West Spokane Valley.
South Hill is in the same borough as Airway Heights and Medical Lake.
The southern half of Spokane County, including the eastern Spokane Valley, would be a district. The northern half of the county, including Liberty Lake, would be a different one.
Committee members Jim McDevitt, the former US attorney under President George W. Bush and head of the Spokane Police Department, local attorney Natasha Hill, and Ball refused to say what cards they drew, but McClatchey had no objection to him Card C.
McClatchey said he spent months tinkering with card ideas and spent about 50 hours seriously drawing his card design.
He said he began dividing Spokane along the city council’s seat lines – to keep those communities intact – and expanding those districts outward.
The hardest decision, McClatchey said, is what to do with Spokane Valley. He decided to divide the valley along east-west lines. The other three maps essentially divide the valley in half from north to south.
Map D is similar to Map A, but it does not place the center of Spokane in a district. Instead, Map D cuts Spokane in half, one in the north and one in the south. Euclid Avenue serves as the main dividing line.
North Spokane County, including the northern Spokane Valley, would form a district. The county’s southeast quadrant, including southern Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake, would be another district. The southwest district would include parts of western Spokane, Airway Heights, Medical Lake, and Cheney.
McClatchey said Card D gives Republicans an edge on the face of it, but it also has some decent traits that might make them workable.
Are there compromises?
McDevitt said that while drawing his map, he focused on creating districts that would provide strong representation for rural residents.
“You have to make sure the county is not ruled by a city, that’s one thing I wanted to achieve,” he said.
Ball said she had a similar philosophy when drawing her map, adding that rural residents in unincorporated areas need a strong voice.
“Look at the city of Spokane, they have a city council, they have a mayor,” she said. “They are represented at the city level.”
Hill, McDevitt, and Ball did not express specific opposition to any particular card.
“I didn’t find any of them particularly troublesome,” said Hill, one of the two Democratic-appointed committee members. “I am still very confident that we can reach a consensus.”
McClatchey said his focus is on making sure the commissioner’s districts accurately reflect the county’s political makeup.
In the 2016 presidential election, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won about 41% of the vote in Spokane County, McClatchey noted. President Joe Biden got 46%. Democratic Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell usually get close to 50% of the vote.
Based on those numbers, at least two of the five district officers must be Democrats to accurately represent the district, McClatchey said. District boundaries that don’t give Democrats a chance to win two seats give Republicans an unfair advantage and are therefore inconsistent with state law, he said.
Both Ball and McDevitt said that despite the differences between the card designs, they are confident that the committee will compromise and come to an agreement.
“I think we can get there,” said Ball. “I think we’ll find a way to get them fit.”
The committee chairman, Elaine Couture, could not be reached for an opinion.