District-Based Elections and Redistricting
This page provides an overview of district-based elections and the redistricting process for local governments in Washington State, including relevant statutes.
Redistricting is the redrawing of election boundary lines for political, administrative, or other public bodies that elect its leadership by district. This includes but is not limited to congressional representatives, state legislators, local town, city, and county councils, commissions, school boards, and many other offices elected by voters grouped in districts. District boundaries ensure that prospective candidates reside within the district and only qualified voters may cast a vote for district candidates.
Jurisdictions that hold elections held by district are required to periodically redraw the boundaries of these district lines to ensure that each district has a relatively equal amount of voters. Though most redistricting efforts happen every 10 years in conjunction with the decennial census, local governments may also switch or modify their district-based election systems in the intervening years.
Local redistricting, governed by RCW 29A.76, happens concurrently with state redistricting. RCW 29A.76.010 contains the requirements for drawing up local government electoral districts, including that:
- Districts are as nearly equal in population as possible.
- Districts are as compact as possible.
- Districts consist of geographically contiguous area.
- Districts are not used for purposes of favoring or disfavoring any racial group or political party.
- To the extent feasible, districts must coincide with existing recognized natural boundaries and preserve existing communities of related and mutual interest.
To assist states and local governments in the reapportionment process, the U.S. Census Bureau is required by federal law (P.L. 94-171) to deliver decennial census data to the states.
- Title RCW 29A — Elections
- RCW 29A.76.010 — Identifies local governments required to redistrict and outlines the process for local redistricting.
- RCW 29A.76.020 — The legislative authority of each county and each city, town, and special purpose district which lies within the county shall provide the county auditor accurate information describing its geographical boundaries and the boundaries of its director, council, or commissioner districts and shall ensure that the information provided to the auditor is kept current.
- RCW 29A.92 — Washington State Voting Rights Act (see the section below on Redistricting as a Result of Legislation)
Cities and Towns
- RCW 29A.76 — Allows a city to redistrict periodically based on population information from the most recent federal decennial census. Includes rules for redrawing internal or director districts.
- Title RCW 35
- RCW 35.22.235 — Defines terms, elections for first-class mayor-council cities with 12 councilmembers.
- RCW 35.22.245 — Defines terms, elections for first-class mayor-council cities with seven councilmembers.
- RCW 35.17.020 — Defines terms, elections, requirements of commissioners for cities under commission form of government
- RCW 35.23.051 — Allows for division of second-class cities into wards, changes may not be made within 120 days prior to an election.
Non-Charter Code Cities
- Title RCW 35A
Counties: RCW 36.32.020 — Requires counties to divide into three commissioner districts to comprise as nearly as possible equal portions of the population of the county; Non-charter county commissioner district boundaries may only change once every four years.
Fire Protection Districts: RCW 52.14.013 — Allows fire districts to subdivide themselves into commissioner districts and requires a public vote of approval.
Port Districts: RCW 53.16.015 — All other port districts are responsible for redrawing their own commissioner districts (If port districts encompass only part of a county or cross county lines, the districts must be redistricted separately).
Public Hospital Districts: RCW 70.44.040(2) — Creates public hospital districts with internal districts that do not follow county legislative districts.
Public Utility Districts: RCW 54.12.010 — Public utility commissioner district boundaries are independent of those of the county commissioner districts. Public utility commissioner district boundaries may not be changed more often than every four years unless the external boundaries of the district have changed.
School Districts: RCW 28A.343 — School districts with internal director districts are required to redistrict to equalize their population.
Water Sewer Districts: RCW 57.12.039 — Commissioners may provide by majority vote that subsequent commissioners be elected from commissioner districts within the district. If the board exercises this option, it shall divide the district into three, five, or seven if the number of commissioners has been increased under RCW 57.12.015.
A local government should redistrict under the following circumstances
- After receiving decennial census data
- After it has annexed territory
- In consideration of a potential violation of the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA).
The Decennial Redistricting Process
The most common type of redistricting occurs every 10 years following the decennial census. The U.S. Census Bureau supplies all census data to the states and each state provides the data to agencies responsible for redistricting. This normally happens at the beginning of the year following the census. However, the 2020 census data was delayed significantly, resulting in new redistricting deadlines for 2021.
The redistricting data includes counts of population by race, ethnicity, voting age, housing occupancy status, and group quarters population, all at the census block level.
Local government required to redistrict include any jurisdiction that elects representatives by internal districts. This includes:
- Cities/ towns with council districts
- Fire districts, port districts, public hospital districts, public utility districts, school districts and water-sewer districts with internal commissioner districts
When districts are redrawn, the redrawing of boundaries should be done according to Ch. 29A.76 RCW. The process must be completed within eight months of receiving the official notice and census information from the Washington State Redistricting Commission.
The decennial redistricting calendar typically begins in April and ends before candidate filing week in May of the following year. However, for 2021 only, the Washington State Legislature has extended the redistricting deadlines as described in this MRSC Insight blog: Redistricting and the 2020 Census. Any jurisdiction (i.e., counties, certain special purpose districts) that is scheduled to elect members of their governing bodies in 2022 must now submit redistricting plans to their county auditor by December 31, 2021. Any jurisdiction (e.g., cities and towns, certain special purpose districts) that is not scheduled to elect members of their governing bodies in 2022 must submit redistricting plans no later than November 15, 2022.
Outside of the delayed release of 2020 decennial census data, this is what a typical redistricting calendar looks like:
- April 1: Census Bureau releases comprehensive block-level census totals to the state and the Washington State Redistricting Commission.
- May 15: 45 days after receiving the data, the Commission must send population data to local governments. Once data is sent to local agencies, the eight-month period for local governments to create a redistricting plan begins.
- December 15: This month usually marks the end of the eight-month period in which local jurisdictions must submit redistricting plans to their county auditor. The county auditor must have all redistricting plans by the end of the month.
- May: County legislative authorities must have adopted precinct boundary changes, including changes to accommodate new district lines, to prepare for the upcoming election cycle. Candidate filing week for congressional, legislative, county, and public utility races typically happens mid-May.
Redistricting as a Result of Annexation
If a local government annexes territory, then district boundaries must be altered to accommodate the extra territory. If the area annexed contains few or no residents, the boundary alteration may be minimal. As to when after an annexation this must be done, it should be done in such time so as to enable the residents of the annexed area to vote for district-based council or commissioner positions at the next municipal general election or when a vacant position must be filled.
Redistricting as a Result of Litigation
The Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA), chapter 29A.92 RCW, provides legal authority for both voluntary and court ordered changes to district-based voting in local governments. Since 2018, the WVRA is legal authority for districting where such authority did not exist before the WVRA. Creating districts or redrawing current districts are the primary methods provided in the WVRA to address and remedy possible voting act violations. Redistricting under the WVRA depends on when a local government is on notice of a potential voting act violation and may happen anytime, not just every 10 years.
As an example, the City of Pasco’s City Council Election System webpage reviews changes to council electoral districts as the city addressed demographic changes. The city conducted outreach about alternative voting options during 2016, and by the 2017 election, the city had changed from “at large” general elections to six districts-based and one "at-large" general election for council seats.
While many local governments in Washington elect members of their governing body at-large, especially cities and towns, others have chosen to establish wards or districts in which some or all of the councilmembers/commissioners are elected by and represent a specific geographic area. It should be noted that redistricting must take place far in advance of a municipal general election.
The establishment of electoral districts is specifically authorized by:
- RCW 35A.12.180 for code cities
- RCW 35.23.051 for second class cities
- First class cities may adopt districts by charter
- RCW 36.32.020 for non-charter and charter counties
- RCW 52.14.013 for fire districts
- RCW 53.16.015 for port districts
- RCW 70.44.040 for public hospital districts
- RCW 54.12.010 for public utility districts
- RCW 28A.343 for school districts
- RCW 57.12.039 for water-sewer districts
Local jurisdictions are responsible for their own redistricting processes but must work with the county auditor, as the county is responsible for final adjustments and for managing local elections. For election purposes, a precinct is the smallest unit into which electoral districts are divided, and by law, must be no larger than 1,500 active registered voters. Rules for defining precinct boundaries are found in RCW 29A.16.050.
Below is a table with guidelines for local governments with internal electoral districts.
|Type of Jurisdiction||Must the internal district lines correspond to the county legislative authority’s internal district?||Is the primary restricted to voters residing within the district?|
|County legislative authority||N/A||Yes|
|City or town district||No||Yes|
|Port district||Yes, if port is countywide and has the same number of commissioner districts||Yes|
|Public utility district||No||Yes|
|School district||No||No, but candidates for office must meet residency requirements|
|Other jurisdictions defined by charter (fire districts or water-sewer district)||No||No, but candidates for office must meet residency requirements|
Here is an overview of steps to take in drawing up or adjusting district boundaries:
- Calculate current population of the jurisdiction and each of its existing internal districts by using the populations of election precincts, census tracts, census blocks, or a combination of any of these units.
- Determine the ideal size for an internal district in the jurisdiction by dividing the total population by the number of existing internal districts.
- Determine what adjustments are needed by subtracting the ideal district size from the jurisdiction’s current population.
- Adjust internal district lines by moving whole precincts, census blocks, or any combination of these to make internal district populations as equal as possible.
Local governments should also keep the following in mind when redrawing districts:
- To the extent possible, respect and minimize divisions to the boundaries of cities, counties, neighborhoods, and communities that have common interests; and
- To comply with the WVRA to ensure that persons in protected classes of voters have an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.
The WVRA empowers local governments to address issues of polarized voting in local elections, defining it as:
(V)oting in which there is a difference […] in the choice of candidates or other electoral choices that are preferred by voters of a protected class, and in the choice of candidates and electoral choices that are preferred by voters in the rest of the electorate.
The WVRA further defines protected class as a "class of voters who are members of a race, color, or language minority group...referenced and defined in the federal voting rights act."
These provisions are primarily aimed at changing the elections of councilmembers or commissioners from at-large positions to district-based positions through the establishment of voting districts.
- Bainbridge Island Municipal Code Ch. 2.06 — Establishes three wards, with two councilmembers to be elected from each ward and one to be elected at large.
- Everett City Council Districts — In 2018 Everett voters approved the adoption of city council districts. The webpage provides an overview of the process and future plans the 2021 district-based elections, as well as links to city resources on the process.
- Resolution 7214 (2018) — Establishes a public feedback process through which the city will evaluate options for representation by district.
- Resolution 7575 (2020) — Adopts the redistricting plan approved by voters.
- Resolution 7634 (2021) — Amends District 1 to include an unincorporated area located within an urban growth area.
- Mount Vernon Municipal Code Ch. 1.12 — Establishes three wards, with two councilmembers to be elected from each ward and one to be elected at large.
- Puyallup Municipal Code
- Seattle Resolution 31464 (2013) — Changes the system of electing councilmembers from an at-large system to a system in which seven of nine councilmembers are elected by districts and two are elected at-large.
- Citizen Advisory Panel on Council Elections Final Report (2003) — Offers findings and recommendations to the city as it was considering moving some council positions from a district-based to at-large city representation.
- Wenatchee Municipal Code Ch. 1.15 — Creates five districts and two at-large seats
- Ordinance No. 2018-2019 (2018) — Establishes voting districts..
- Whatcom County Municipal Code Ch 1.12 — Establishes five voting districts, thereby reducing the number of commissioners.
- Ordinance No. 2016-15 (2016) — Repeals and replaces districts in accordance with charter amendment approved by voters.
Some local governments that established a system of electing councilmembers or commissioners via districts have altered or abandoned this method. Like the decision to establish districts the decision to stop using districts is also local. Cities, towns, or special purpose districts that alter their system of district-based elections must advise the county’s elections supervisor of any changes.
Below are some examples with changes in favor of electing at-large councilmembers or commissioners:
- Bonney Lake Ordinance No. 1383 (2011)
- Kelso Resolution 16-1161 (2016)
- Snohomish Ordinance No. 2005 (2002)
- Port of Illahee Resolution 2015-01 (2015)
- Prosser Ordinance No. 1278 (1984)
- Ellensburg Ordinance No. 2771 (1969)
The process for establishing a city or town ward/district system is fairly straightforward. The first step is for the city or town council to pass an ordinance establishing a ward or district system; there is no required public vote on the matter, although the council could choose to conduct an advisory election on the issue. The council will need to decide how many districts it wants to establish and whether it wants any at-large positions.
The councilmembers elected by district would be voted on during the primary election by voters in their districts and then by all the voters during the general election unless, prior to January 1, 1994, the city limited general election voting for any or all council positions only to the voters residing within the ward associated with that council position. If a city had limited the voting in the general election in this manner, then it is authorized to continue to do so. RCW 35.23.051 provides a similar process for second-class cities.
The bulk of the work in establishing a ward/district system would be in determining district boundaries. Once the process is completed, the county's election supervisor must be properly notified.
Below is a list of cities MRSC is aware of that have established districts. Most of these cities still retain at least one or two at-large positions, although there are a few examples that elect the entire council by district. In most cases, there are more district/ward representatives than at-large councilmembers, but again there are a couple exceptions.
First Class Cities
- Aberdeen — 12 councilmembers: 2 each from 6 wards
- Bellingham — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 6 wards
- Bremerton — 7 councilmembers: 7 districts
- Everett — 7 councilmembers: 2 at-large, 5 districts (The City Council Districts webpage details the city's move from at-large to district-based representation.)
- Seattle — 9 councilmembers: 2 at-large, 7 districts
- Spokane — 6 councilmembers: 2 each from 3 districts
- Tacoma — 8 councilmembers: 3 at-large, 5 districts
- Yakima — 7 councilmembers: 7 districts
Second Class Cities
- Colville — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 2 each from 3 districts
- Ritzville — 7 councilmembers: 2 at-large, 5 districts
Optional Municipal Code Cities
- Anacortes — 7 councilmembers: 4 at-large, 3 wards
- Bainbridge Island — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 2 each from 3 wards
- Blaine — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 2 each from 3 wards
- Burlington — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 6 wards
- Camas — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 2 each from 3 wards
- Centralia — 7 councilmembers: 3 at-large, 4 wards
- Chehalis — 7 councilmembers: 3 at-large, 4 districts
- Chelan — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 2 each from 3 wards
- Hoquiam — 12 councilmembers: 2 elected from each of 6 wards
- Mount Vernon — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 2 each from 3 wards
- Kennewick — 7 councilmembers: 4 at-large, 3 wards
- Pasco — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 6 districts (See Pasco’s City Council Election System webpage for updates made in 2016 to the city’s electoral districts)
- Pullman — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 2 each from 3 wards
- Puyallup — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 2 each from 3 districts
- Sedro-Woolley — 7 councilmembers: 1 at-large, 6 wards
- Sunnyside — 7 councilmembers: 3 at-large, 4 districts
- Wenatchee — 7 councilmembers: 2 at-large, 5 districts
- National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL)
- RedistrictingOnline.Org — Acts as a clearinghouse for information on the redistricting process. Meant for use by residents as well as staff charged with the redistricting process. Developed in partnership with the New York Law School and the New York Census and Redistricting Institute
- List of Redistricting Software Vendors
- Public Mapping Project — Provides open-source software with a user-friendly online mapping tool that allows anyone to create district boundaries.
- Washington Secretary of State Redistricting and Census timeline