April 26, 2021
Late data delays Whatcom County districting; US Census blames COVID-19
Kenneth Duncan

Whatcom County council districts were redrawn in 2016, with each containing a population around 42,000 as specified by law. This year’s mandated update is behind schedule due to delays in receiving U.S. Census data.

April 26, 2021
Late data delays Whatcom County districting; US Census blames COVID-19
Kenneth Duncan

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A months-long delay in the delivery of 2020 U.S. Census data has compelled the 2021 Whatcom Districting Committee to postpone changes in county voting district maps, despite the county charter’s strict May 1 deadline on map generation and submission. 

The delay, which the United States Census Bureau attributes to “COVID-19-related circumstances,” has shifted the delivery of usable census data from March 31 to Sept. 30 — heavily impacting both local and state governments. 

While the U.S. Census was able to report state population counts on April 26, the second dataset — containing the finer demographic information used in redistricting, such as county, city and town population numbers — is due to release Aug. 16 at the earliest.

The second set may be delayed further, with an Alabama-led lawsuit challenging the 2020 census’ use of a new privacy protection technique known as “differential privacy.” If Alabama wins the suit, data may be delayed for several more months past August. 

No effect in 2022

Whatcom County Auditor Diana Bradrick said that, despite the delay, 2022 county elections will not be affected due to how early the county redistricting process occurs. 

“Redistricting for districts occurs in the odd year, which would be this year. All of the districts with internal director districts have to draw new lines,” Bradrick said. “But they don’t actually get used until the following year.” 

The Whatcom Districting Committee is made up of five members, four of whom are appointed by the Whatcom County Council to equally represent Democrats and Republicans. The fifth position is nonpartisan and appointed by the committee as chair. Current members are Republicans Charlie Crabtree and Jeremiah Ramsey, Democrats Mike Estes and Stephen Jackson, and chair Gary Jensen. 

The committee itself appoints a nonpartisan Districting Master who drafts districting maps that determine voting districts based on population. The committee reviews and approves these maps for future elections.

Dominoes

Western Washington University mathematics department Chair Tjalling Ypma serves as the committee’s Districting Master. He said that the delay in census data delivery could push back the development of a functional district map several months. But due to the national nature of the issue, the charter timeline can legally be adjusted to take these circumstances into account.

“The usual deadline for these things is May, and the last we’ve heard from the census bureau is that we’ll have the data by the end of September,” Ypma said. “So, we won’t be meeting that deadline [but] assuming we get the data by the end of September, my goal would be to try and reach an agreement by Thanksgiving.” 

Bradrick expects that the delay will also result in changes in the process.

“What we think is going to happen is that we’ll end up doing precincting in multiple stages, which normally you don’t want to do,” she said. “We’re already out of whack with the charter and there’s nothing to do about it because they don’t have the data.” 

The detailed demographic data provided by the U.S. Census is necessary for determining the position and size of precincts, which function as the building blocks of voting districts. The Whatcom County Charter also mandates the use of census data in the redistricting process. 

“You move a precinct from one district to another, but there’s domino effects where you have to move another precinct somewhere else, the goal being to have the number of people in each district close to the same,” Ypma said. “The working data there is the number of people in each precinct.” 

Proposition 9 impacts

The most recent council redistricting occurred in 2016, after passage of Whatcom County Council Proposition 9, which created two more county council districts (North and South Bellingham) in addition to the existing three. 

Whatcom County’s districts are informally referred to as North and South Bellingham, Foothills (comprising most of eastern Whatcom), Farmlands (Lynden and Everson areas) and Coastal (Ferndale, Blaine and Lummi Island and environs). Two councilmembers are elected at large. 

Ypma, who was Districting Master for both the 2011 and 2016 districting sessions, said the districts that Proposition 9 created are a result of the size of Bellingham’s population, which grew from 81,070 to 91,610 since the 2011 census. 

“Each district has to have about 42,000 people in it, and Bellingham (in 2015) had more than two times 42,000 people,” he noted 

Prior to 2016, Whatcom had three council districts, with each district electing two councilmembers, along with one at-large position.

‘Odd, flawed, necessary’

Charges of gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of electoral boundaries in order to favor a specific political party, were alleged by Republican committee members.

Estes said that while there are issues inherent in redistricting, the process attempts to account for member bias while maintaining nonpartisanship.

“Redistricting is an odd, flawed but necessary process. Any citizen you select is going to have some bias,” said Estes, who served on the 2016 districting committee and serves on the current committee. “The rules guiding redistricting calling for equal representatives from the two major parties seem outdated but generally reflect where people who are most interested in candidates, campaigns and policy happen to gather themselves. I’m not sure I have a great vision for a better system that works with human decision making.” 

Given that 2016 saw such a huge shift in county districts, both Ypma and Estes said that, short of a huge shift in county population, the 2021 redistricting process will most likely result in boundary maintenance rather than anything radical. Ramsey and Crabtree had not responded by publication to requests to comment. 

“I anticipate that the process this year will be much more like the 2011 process than the 2016 process,” Ypma said. “Probably what we will be doing is simply adjusting the boundaries of the existing districts to accommodate changes in population.” 

Ypma said that the role of Districting Master should be filled by someone who understands the needs and identities of Whatcom’s communities. 

“You need somebody who knows the area pretty well, the culture of the communities along with the interests that might bind various parts of the County together,” Ypma said. “I think some sensitivity to that does really help draw up a sensible plan.”

— Reported by Kenneth Duncan

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