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Legislative districts face growth challenge as new boundaries are drawn
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Legislative districts face growth challenge as new boundaries are drawn

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The boundaries for Washington’s current legislative districts will change over the next few months. For Longview’s representatives in District 19 and the surrounding districts in Southwest Washington, that means expanding into more communities.

States use the once-a-decade U.S. Census results to redraw the boundaries for the congressional and legislative districts. The process is meant to maintain an equal balance between the populations of each district, which after the most recent Census means each local district in Washington should represent roughly 157,200 people.

The 19th District was the most underpopulated in the state after the 2020 Census. The southwest corner of the state will need to add more than 13,000 new residents in order to approach the “average size” for a legislative district.

“From what I’ve heard and the little I’ve seen from proposed changes, there will be a little more modest and incremental expansion of the district,” said Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen.

What makes the boundary adjustments a challenge this year is that there is a limited number of options. District 19 is bordered by districts 20 and 24, both of which also need to expand and add more people. District 24 needs another 9,000 residents to reach the ideal population, and District 20 needs 4,500 more residents.

Lisa McLean, executive director of the Washington State Redistricting Commission, described the chain of changes that happen during the redistricting process as shifting tectonic plates.

“If 19 makes a change, it impacts the changes that 20 can make and that might have an impact on 35. Before long you’ve thrown the whole thing up in the air,” McLean said.

The need for growth across the far west side of Washington mirrors a national trend: major cities are expanding much faster than rural counties. The Seattle area added more than 100,000 residents over the course of the last 10 years. More granular Census data indicates Olympia, Vancouver and Spokane also saw population growth faster than the state average.

“This shift into the urban areas is a headline from the Census this year. It was a trend before, but it is more pronounced now,” McLean said.

Commissioners will release the initial maps for the legislative districts Sept. 21, with proposed maps for the 10 Congressional districts following on Sept. 28. Final maps need to be submitted to the state Legislature by November 15.

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Looking back at impacts from 2011

This year was not the first time District 19 faced the question about how to expand.

After the 2010 Census, the district was about 10,000 residents below the target population. District 19 mostly saw things shift on the north end, expanding into Lewis County and taking over a larger chunk of Grays Harbor County.

Dean Takko was the representative for District 19 during the previous redistricting process. Takko said the addition of Lewis County likely made the district as a whole edge closer to the Republican Party.

“All in all I don’t think it will make a whole lot of difference which way they go,” Takko said. “This region is pretty homogenous in terms of whether its [Democrat] or [Republican] leaning.”

Bigger changes happened next door in Cowlitz County. The eastern half of the county was transferred from District 18 to District 20. This pushed 18 further south until it only represented Clark County.

Both of the previous redistricting processes led to tough choices for Ed Orcutt, who was appointed to take an open representative seat in District 18 in January 2002. Weeks later, his home in Kelso was shifted to District 19 and Orcutt was forced to move in order to remain within his original district.

The boundaries around Cowlitz County shifted again on the 2012 map when the east side of the county was moved into District 20. Orcutt stayed put in Cowlitz County that time and won re-election.

“I went out and met as many of the new constituents as I could. I told them what I stood for and ended up being a pretty good match for that district as well,” Orcutt said.

One thing Orcutt, Takko and Walsh agreed on was the redistricting process in Washington was a pretty fair system. Each of the major political parties has two appointed members on the Redistricting Commission and a professional dispute mediator is serving as the lead commissioner.

The process also has been open for public comment throughout the year. Washington residents who have strong opinions about the possible district boundaries can attend virtual meetings, send in public comments or even submit their own maps.

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