DISTRICT X: Data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau confirmed what many in Washington had already predicted: Steady population growth over the past decade means the state has nabbed a new 10th congressional district and a new member of Congress.
Population growth in the West was strong overall, up 13.8 percent, with the region surpassing the Midwest in terms of population. At 14.1 percent, Washington saw the highest levels of growth among the Pacific coast states, adding an additional 830,419 new residents over the decade. Idaho also registered exceptional levels of growth. Average U.S. population growth was 9.7 percent, with considerable hollowing out in the nation’s midsection as aging populations drift to the coasts in retirement.
Washington was among eight states that gained a total of 12 congressional seats in the new census count. Ten states lost representatives.
Still, Washington’s rate of growth registered as the lowest since the 11.1 percent noted in the 1940 Census, another period of economic distress and downturn reflecting the Great Depression years. The 2000 Census found Washington had grown 21.1 percent, to 5,894,121 residents, a robust period of growth that has tended to color the area’s subsequent comprehensive planning, where Whatcom cities have planned for high levels of growth based on statistical highs. Perhaps these assumptions can be revisited as the county and its cities take up the growth debate again in 2011.
For more than a century after the first census was taken in 1790, the number of House seats grew with the country, but the number has been fixed at 435 since 1913. The Constitution requires that each state be allotted at least one representative, but does not provide a solution to the inevitable problem of how to avoid fractional allocations of representatives, since districts do not cross state lines. Since 1940, the remaining 385 seats have been doled out based on an uneasy formula that—such as is the case in Massachusetts—can call for a loss in representation even though the population of that state has remained stable.
“This is a great day for the people of Washington,” Secretary of State Sam Reed reacted to the news. “We gain in clout, with another strong voice in Congress to be added in 2012. We gain an Electoral College vote and our population gain means we get a little larger slice of the pie as federal grants are apportioned out based on population.”
At the national level, the news launches a big tussle for the future control of Congress, with Republicans in many parts of the country well positioned to make what may amount to permanent gains. In Washington, the struggle may be more subtle as Olympia and Vancouver, Wash., compete to become the epicenter of a 10th Congressional District in Southwest Washington, a district that will still remain somewhat progressive in outlook.
The actual work of redividing the state into equal sized congressional districts and legislative districts will be the task of a bipartisan citizen commission. Four voting citizen members—two Republicans and two Democrats—will be appointed by legislative caucus leaders. The four will choose a fifth, nonvoting, person as chair. The panel will have all of 2011 to develop and finalize the maps, and three of the four voting members must vote for the final product. The ideal size of each congressional district will be 672,454; the ideal size of new legislative districts will be 137,235, according to the Secretary of State. Under state law, the Legislature has virtually no role in redistricting and the governor cannot sign or veto the resulting maps. If the commission fails to come to agreement, redistricting duties fall instead to the state Supreme Court.
According to Census data released so far, the state saw its largest population growth around Vancouver, where Portland’s restrictive growth laws have tended to push new residential populations north across the Columbia River. But the Vancouver exurbs are already strongly represented as the population center of Congressional District 3. A stronger case might be made to form a new congressional district around Olympia, the largest Puget Sound city not central to any particular district, balkanized at the edges of the 3rd, while Tacoma and Federal Way are at the heart of the 9th Congressional District. The 9th District itself, represented by Democrat Adam Smith of Tacoma, was added after the 1990 census.
Of course, the farther north the epicenter of District 10, the larger the ripple effect on redistricting in Northwest Washington.
A 10th district coming into existence south of Seattle will tend to press the population epicenter of Congressional District 2 north, lessening the influence of Everett (which conceivably could find itself peeled into District 1), an outcome that will favor Democrat Rep. Rick Larsen, who did well in Bellingham but lost in large portions of this district. District 2 may also likely lose that small sliver of eastern King County, again increasing the role Bellingham could play as the major population center.
Perhaps more significant will be the redrawing of state legislative districts.
We’ve already noted the widening political divide between the county and its major population center, Bellingham. By résumé and interests, our 40th District representatives seem to have more of a Bellingham vibe than the arch-conservatives who now dominate the 42nd District. And, from the standpoint of relative affluence and voter outlook, Bellinghamsters continue to share a lot in common with residents of San Juan and Island counties (the state’s most progressive voters).
A redistricting could calcify this, continuing to snip Bellingham votes from the 42nd District and cast them south. A better, more stable outcome might be to bring Bellingham more fully into Whatcom politics in an effort to heal a cultural divide that just makes no sense played at the local level.
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