Redistricting with Commissioner April Sims

Redistricting with Commissioner April Sims

This week on the show April Sims, Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC) AFL-CIO and member of the Washington State Redistricting Commission, joins Crystal to get in to how redrawing district boundaries in our state happens, how it impacts communities where lines are redrawn, and how you can advocate on behalf of your community as the Redistricting Commission makes its decisions.

About the Guest

Find Commissioner April Sims on Twitter/X at @aprilr_sims.

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at and in our episode notes. 

Today we are thrilled to welcome April Sims who is the Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO - the first woman of color and the first Black person to be elected as a WSLC executive officer. And who was appointed to the Washington State Redistricting Commission in January - also being the first woman of color, the first Black person to be appointed to the commission. So this is a big deal and we really want to cover the topic of redistricting because it is so important. So just first off, thank you for joining us - really appreciate you and having you on.

[00:01:26] April Sims: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to join you again and really excited to talk about the work of the Redistricting Commission, so thank you again for having me.

[00:01:36] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. So I guess just starting from the beginning, what does the Redistricting Commission do and what made you want to be involved with it?

[00:01:44] April Sims: Oh yeah, great question. So the Redistricting Commission redraws our Congressional and legislative boundaries every 10 years, based on population shifts and changes. And it's significant because those maps remain in effect for the next 10 years, in terms of what the boundary lines look like and whether or not folks have the opportunity to elect representatives from their own communities. So the redistricting process is incredibly important, but I think why it's important to me and why I wanted to serve on the commission - I think it's a number of things both personally and professionally. So you mentioned that I'm the Secretary Treasurer for the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and as the Secretary Treasurer my fiduciary responsibilities are constitutional compliance in the budget, which doesn't sound that exciting, except that our constitution includes language that charges us with fighting the forces that seek to enslave the human soul and to protect our democratic institutions of our nation. And the right to vote is fundamental to that and making sure that everyone has the opportunity to cast a vote that could lead to them electing someone who's going to represent them in their community.

So professionally it's important to me, but also personally it's important to me. My grandparents migrated to Washington from the South, they were sharecroppers in rural Louisiana. And my grandfather found out that the landowner was shorting some of the families on the crop payout, so he got the rest of the farmers all riled up. I like to think of him as a union organizer because that's what we do - is organize workers against bad bosses. But that wasn't the kind of thing that you did in that time and in that area, so he put his life at risk doing that and they were planning to lynch him, and he had to flee the South.

And migrating to Washington changed our family's story, it changed our history - well, maybe not our history, I guess, I should probably rephrase that - but it changed our family's story, right? It changed the future of my family. And they couldn't freely exercise their right to vote in the South, so voting when my grandparents migrated here was a huge deal. Every year they would get the community together, they'd dress up, Election Day was a big deal - then they'd go vote, they'd share a meal together, it was like a holiday for my family and the members of my community. So our redistricting process maintains our democracy and that's personally why this work is important to me.

[00:04:35] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely critical. I did not know that about your grandfather and family. So you just come from a legacy of organizing and, wow - just representative of really the harrowing life-threatening attempt to just live. To just live and to experience just fairness, and survive, and help your family just make it.

[00:05:00] April Sims: Yeah.

[00:05:00] Crystal Fincher: So especially at this time where we see voting rights under attack, not just attacking via issue - but structurally, institutionally - looking at people interfering with the ability for people to cast vote, disenfranchising people, and gerrymandering happening all across the country. The way we do redistricting here is a little bit different than we see in a lot of those other areas - how does ours work?

[00:05:34] April Sims: Yeah. That's a great question because it is really unique in Washington State. Lots of other states - their Legislature is responsible for redistricting and redrawing their maps. In Washington, there are four appointed commissioners - the House Republicans and Democrats each appoint one commissioner and the Senate Democrats and Republicans each appoint one commissioner. Those four commissioners select a fifth non-voting commissioner who serves as Chair and helps kind of navigate or facilitate the process. Those four commissioners are responsible for drawing the final maps - they have to be agreed on by three of the four commissioners. Those maps have to be finalized by November 15th so they can go to the Legislature for adoption. The Legislature can change our maps, but only by a vote of two thirds majority of the Legislature and then they can't change the maps by more than 2% in any one area. So it is a little unique - all of the commissioners are independent, appointed by caucus, but serve independently.

[00:06:50] Crystal Fincher: Right. Okay. So two commissioners appointed by the Democratic caucus, two commissioners appointed by the Republican caucus, and then there's one - is there a Chair?

[00:07:02] April Sims: There's a Chair, yeah. The Chair serves as a non-voting commissioner.

[00:07:08] Crystal Fincher: Okay. And so I guess a cross between a bipartisan and nonpartisan - but really bringing in a lot more independence than we see in other states where active legislators are directly drawing those lines which sometimes comes up with more extreme outcomes. How do you think the process that we have here, I guess, manifests in the results that we've seen? Has that turned out to be better historically? Has it turned out to be worse? What has our process yielded up to this point?

[00:07:46] April Sims: I think for the most part, the maps have been competitive, right? That it's led to competitive districts, which is ideally the point - that every voter should feel like their vote matters. And how your district is drawn impacts whether or not your vote matters. So I think historically it's been a process that hasn't had a lot of representation of young people, minorities, low-income folks - because it is a volunteer commission that pays a small stipend, but it's a lot of work. So you have to either work for an organization that supports your serving on the Redistricting Commission or have enough financial means to take this position unpaid. So I think that impacts who has historically served on the commission and what values they bring to the work.

[00:08:46] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. And that's a very big deal. And as we talked about just upfront, this has been - historically been a domain of predominantly white men, and concerns of representation from community just hasn't been there. You are the first Black person serving on this Redistricting Commission, the first woman of color serving on this Redistricting Commission. As you're approaching this work, what difference do you think that makes? Or bringing your experience and your life and identity to this work, how does that help? How does that play out? Why do you think that's important?

[00:09:30] April Sims: Well, I think it's what happens organically with representation. So as we're thinking about even community outreach, how we reach out to communities of color and underserved communities - what happens organically for me, because these things are top of mind for me, right? How do I make sure that my community has an opportunity to participate and feels like their voice in this process will make a difference. I bring the voice of my community into all the spaces where I work and operate. So just it's an organic thing that happens with representation - but because it happens organically with representation, it also means it doesn't happen if there isn't representation, right? That there aren't folks that just naturally are looking around the room and asking questions about who's missing and how do we bring folks who are missing into the space. But I will tell you candidly, Crystal, it's a lot of responsibility. I think there's high expectations - anytime you're the first, right? High expectations to serve my community well, do my job well, be fair and negotiate maps that are going to make a difference.

[00:10:53] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. We could talk for quite some time about the challenges of being the first, and the expectations and the institution that you are walking into that has never been designed or even tasked with accommodating someone different. And here you are and having to push up against some of those just institutional attitudes, tradition that has excluded you, precedent that has excluded you, and trying to make that process more inclusive. I think as we look at these maps here in these states, there are a number of districts that are competitive - there are a lot of districts that could go either way. There are purple districts - there's been a lot of population shift in different areas and some demographics in different cities and areas are very different than they were before. So how do you approach, I guess, trying to maintain fairness as you're drawing the districts? And what does that look like collaboratively as you're working with the two people appointed by the Republicans? How does that process work? How is the sausage made?

[00:12:08] April Sims: Well, I think it starts with clarity around your values, right? Being clear about what's most important and how you prioritize those values - like what is a value and what is a consideration? I think historically folks have always viewed, I certainly did before I was part of the process, viewed redistricting as an incumbency protection plan, right? I think that that is a consideration but not a value, right? So being clear about what's a value and what's a consideration and how you prioritize those things. I think in terms of population shifts and what we know about the growth in Washington State, we're still waiting on the data. So I think the first approach is to ask all the questions and capture as much anecdotal information as we can while we're waiting for the data to come in. So for your listeners - historically, we use the Census data to redraw the maps. And historically that data is available to the commission and to the general public sometime in the middle of April, but because of COVID and problems with the former administration, that Census data is not available to us until August 16th.

Now remember, I said we have to finalize our maps by November 15th, so we're working behind in terms of when that data is available. So we know that the population in Washington has grown, we can make some assumptions. There are some population estimates about where the bulk of the growth has been, but we don't have that detailed demographic data to tell us who is living where and where the population shifts have not only been, but where we anticipate those population shifts to continue to grow over the next 10 years. Because remember these maps will be in effect for the next 10 years, so it's not just a snapshot of where we are right now. But also what data we can gather that will tell us where we might be in 5 or 10 years, so that we can be mindful of those things when we're drawing maps too. So right now the process is to just gather as much data as possible and not make any assumptions based on population estimates until we have the actual Census information.

[00:14:35] Crystal Fincher: But there are-

[00:14:36] April Sims: Oh, go ahead. You're going to ask me another question?

[00:14:37] Crystal Fincher: Oh no, sorry. Go ahead.

[00:14:40] April Sims: No. I'll just keep rambling. Your listeners are going to get tired of hearing my voice so you should jump in.

[00:14:44] Crystal Fincher: It's good information. I think what I was wondering is - you talked about bringing values to this work. What are the values that you're bringing? How are you processing this? What kind of lens are you bringing to this process and how does that impact the feedback that you give?

[00:15:03] April Sims: That's a great question. I think the first value that I'm bringing to this process is to be as open and transparent as I can be - keeping in mind that we still will be negotiating final maps. But to be as open and transparent as possible and to acknowledge that I don't have the answers, at best I have the questions. And I want to provide as much space as possible for folks who will be directly impacted by these final maps to provide me with the feedback and the information that I need so I can be as thoughtful as possible around what these final maps look like.

[00:15:44] Crystal Fincher: Well, and I appreciate that you are reaching out more and more deeply into the community than has happened before. Certainly having to make accommodations just during the pandemic and how to get feedback - considering that. But particularly, I think, just looking from some feedback from some communities of color of different types and different areas, the conversation from last redistricting period to this one certainly talking about majority-minority districts, or districts where there's a majority BIPOC population, but also looking at - does that potentially in some ways also dilute some votes or take away some power, if then you're dissecting cities in a certain way and in several areas, and breaking up some of the natural ability to mobilize around some issues. And I'm thinking of Yakima, I'm thinking of South King County - where some districts are comprised of five cities or more. How do you, I guess, think through that and are you primarily seeking to keep communities together? What does community mean? Is that based off of municipality? How do you approach that?

[00:17:11] April Sims: Yeah. Well, there is a criteria written into the law, right - for the Redistricting Commission - that includes that the districts should be equal population; that they should be compact, convenient, and contiguous, so as whole as possible, right? That we reduce dividing county and municipal boundaries, that we do not favor or discriminate against any incumbent candidate or political party which I think is something that the general public might not be aware of - that that is actually written into the law and part of our redistricting criteria - that we encourage electoral competition, and that we preserve communities of interest.

So I think that gets to your question, Crystal, around majority-minority districts and keeping our tribal reservations and our tribal nations together. Those are all communities of interest, but there could potentially be other communities of interest. School districts are arguably a community of interest, so doing as much as we can to keep school districts together and cities - like right now, we're hearing testimony from folks in Eastern Washington and in the Bremerton area that their cities are divided among three different legislative districts and how challenging it is for them to consolidate their political power, so that they can elect folks that have their communities of interest in mind.

So I think that - thinking about what is a community of interest and how we keep those communities of interest together - is definitely not just a legal criteria but a value, and that's where public comment really is helpful for me. And what I'm looking for when folks are offering comment to the commission is for information around those communities of interest. There's what we know based on data and then there's what we know based on what we hear from folks who live and work in these communities - and it's hearing from folks who live and work in the communities that's really helpful. I mean, we can analyze the data until the moon explodes and cut it 19 different ways, right? But having folks, having your listeners show up at an open meeting and providing us with the little nuances and the nuggets of information that the data won't tell us is really, really helpful.

[00:19:34] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. And I identify with the feedback that you were getting from folks in Eastern Washington. I live in Kent, and Kent has three legislative districts in there and some of those challenges of organizing and being able to elect people. So how do people offer public comment? When are the opportunities for them to get involved? How can they submit testimony or testify to you live?

[00:20:05] April Sims: Well, the first thing that I would tell your listeners is go to - wait, is it .gov? I should know the email off the top of my head but now I'm going to Google it. So -

[00:20:19] Crystal Fincher: And it's great, we'll also include that in our show notes.

[00:20:23] April Sims: Yes. Oh, go to - that's our official website. You can provide feedback to the Redistricting Commission in a number of different ways. You can attend a public outreach meeting - we are wrapping up our first round of public outreach meetings and scheduling our next round. So go to the website and you definitely can find more information about the upcoming public meetings and how you can offer your testimony. But if you're not comfortable with technology, or you don't want to be on Zoom, or you're not sure that you want to give your public testimony orally - you can also email us, you can submit your comment online, you can submit a video. So if you miss the public comment meeting for your specific area, you can upload a video. 

We're trying to make it - you can call and leave a message for us. We're trying to make it as accessible as possible, right? Knowing that folks process in different ways and feel comfortable providing feedback in different ways. We also have a tool where you can actually draw a map of either your district, or your region, so you can provide that information to us if you want to nerd out on the numbers, like I know a lot of us do. Or you want to play around with what you want your legislative or your congressional district to look like - that's a tool that's available, and all of that information is shared with all of the members of the commission. So we try to provide as many ways as possible. And folks can submit their written testimony or their oral testimony, or their video testimony in whatever language they're comfortable with and we will translate it. So we wanted to remove as many of those barriers as possible through our public outreach this year.

[00:22:27] Crystal Fincher: I love that. I love all the different ways that people can get there, I love that there is not a language barrier. Is there also non-English and alternate language outreach happening?

[00:22:38] April Sims: Yeah. Sending out information in a number of different languages, working with stakeholders and community partners to find out - and I think this is important - not just language that's translated or documents that are translated, but communication that's culturally competent, right? So taking our lead from community stakeholders around what messaging resonates with the communities that we are seeking to engage. So we don't - we want to meet folks where they are and we want to be as inclusive as possible, so being culturally competent in our communication is important. We have ASL and Spanish translation automatically available for all of our meetings, but if someone wants to attend a meeting they can request an interpreter in another language and we will provide that.

[00:23:29] Crystal Fincher: Okay. And so a lot of people - as I just encounter people all over the place and get in random conversations about submitting testimony and voting and all of that - offer comments such as, I just don't know what to say, I don't know what they want to know, I don't know what would make a difference, what do I have to say that they don't already know, what could be helpful that I have to say. What is it that is helpful to hear? And what is it that people can tell you? And what kinds of experiences are useful for you to know?

[00:24:01] April Sims: Ooh, great question. I think the stories are most helpful and that's what moves folks the most. So when I hear stories from folks who say - my neighbor is in a different legislative district, but our kids go to the same school. Those are - I want to dig in deeper and look at why is that the case, why are we dividing this specific community of interest and is there an opportunity to make that community whole? I think also stories around how folks have been harmed by the redistricting process in the past - stories about 10 years ago, I was in this district and now I'm in this other district and I don't have the same voice or the same opportunity to participate in the democratic process because I've been drawn out of my neighborhood or I've been drawn out of my community - so I think hearing stories about harm.

And then I also think what's helpful for me is for folks to tell us - how has your community changed? We've got the current maps and I think, I'm trying to find the right word for this, but I think the standard course, right? Is to look at the existing maps and redraw based on an existing map. And so if we look at the existing map and we redraw from where the current lines are just based on data, that might not necessarily tell us how that community has changed over the last 10 years. Some of the demographic data will get us there, because we can look at some of the micro data and we can drill down fairly deep. But I also find it really helpful for folks to let me know how their community has changed since the last time we drew the maps, so that when I'm looking at the new maps I can be mindful of that.

[00:26:00] Crystal Fincher: That is really helpful information. And I think that's an excellent point - that it's not just the data, it's about the people - and fundamentally, the people, their neighborhoods, and communities, and how they can feel a part of their community, participate and be a part of their community, and giving feedback back on how they are or are not able to do that and how boundaries can impact how they can do that. So I appreciate that, that's excellent insight. 

I want to also ask just about - on the composition of the Redistricting Commission - as we talked about, two people appointed by the Democratic caucus, two people appointed by the Republican caucus - one of those people appointed is a former Senator, Joe Fain, who narrowly lost re-election after being credibly accused of rape in the - he was a Senator in the 47th Legislative District, which is southeast King County. And he was appointed to serve on this redistricting commission by the Republicans - certainly has raised a lot of eyebrows, caused a lot of concern - and many people feeling it's inappropriate. How does that impact your work? What's your view on serving with someone who has been credibly accused and so far there has not been a legitimate investigation into what happened?

[00:27:39] April Sims: Yeah - and Crystal, we've heard a lot of testimony and a lot of public comments since our very first redistricting commission meetings about how members of the public feel like this has impacted their ability to participate. I think we have to make space for the hard work that folks who are daylighting sexual assault are doing, and we have to acknowledge that there has been harm done, right? It's a difficult position to be in because ultimately we negotiate our final maps with the other members of the commission. So at the end of the day we have a job to do, and I'm going to do the job that I was appointed to do to the best of my ability. I think it's unfortunate that this is who the Republicans chose to represent - the Republican Senators chose to represent their caucus in this process because based on the public comment that we've heard, it is impacting folks and their ability to participate in the process.

We want to have an open, transparent process that's accessible to everyone and if we have folks who feel like they can't participate because of these allegations then that does real harm. And ultimately, the Republicans got to pick their person and this is who they picked. So I'll do the job that I was appointed to do and we'll negotiate the best possible maps for the folks in the State of Washington that I can, and it's unfortunate that we have this playing out in the background and that there isn't more accountability.

[00:29:36] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. And that there isn't more accountability there - certainly I share that feeling. I'm also wondering just your opinion on, now, to serve on this commission there has to be a period of time after you finished serving from office - so it's not like someone can leave office today, serve on the commission tomorrow - there is a grace period in there. There is also a grace period after serving on the commission where you can't run for office. However, that grace period doesn't cover the length of time - these maps will be in place for 10 years later. And so someone could conceivably eventually run for a district that they helped to shape and create and could think of this as drawing their own boundaries. And in that example actually, former Senator Joe Fain, who some may feel is on an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation after the rape allegation could potentially be involved with drawing lines and then try and make an entrée into office. Certainly this could happen with anyone serving with there - you could choose to run, other people could choose to run. Do you feel it's appropriate for commissioners to be able to run if they've been involved in drawing those boundaries?

[00:31:08] April Sims: Yeah. I think you raise a really good question. Right now, it's a two year embargo, so you have to have been removed from elected office for two years and you can't run for two years after the maps go into effect. Actually I should double check that - if it's after the maps are finalized or when they go into effect. And so I think the thinking there is you couldn't be a first-term candidate under the new maps but that certainly doesn't prohibit you from being a candidate two years later, right? So the maps will go into effect in 2022, you could arguably run for an elected office in 2024. And I'll have to double check - I don't know if it's state and federal office based on the maps that we draw or if it's any elected position - I think it might be any elected position but I should double check. I don't have plans to run for office so it wasn't a deal breaker for me. But I think you raise an interesting point - how long should that embargo be? Should it be two years? Should it be five years? The population will continue to shift over the course of the 10 year maps, so at some point in time the districts change. I don't know, I think that's a really good question. I say now that I have no plans on running, but 10 years from now who knows what my life would look like and whether or not I'd be interested. So -

[00:32:46] Crystal Fincher: I mean, you could run and you would be a formidable candidate. I'm just throwing that out there.

[00:32:50] April Sims: I appreciate that but I'm pretty happy where I am now - big work to do, but I appreciate that Crystal, I do. So no, I think it's a really interesting question and might be worth looking into - where is the ethical boundary?

[00:33:11] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. Interesting questions involved in the process that certainly, I think, we will be discussing more in the future and I appreciate getting your take on them. I think overall as we are wrapping up here in the time - why do you think it's so important to be involved in this process? For people to get involved in this process? What are the stakes?

[00:33:37] April Sims: Well, the stakes are whether or not we end up with maps that keep communities of interest whole, right? And it is important because these maps will shape the future of policy for Washington State - who we elect next year to represent us - those are the folks that are going to pass policy that will outlive our current maps. The policies that we pass over the next 10 years will be in effect long after the next round of redistricting is over, and so we've been able to do some really amazing things in Washington State - we lead the nation in minimum wage and our Paid Family Medical Leave Act, we just passed overtime protections for farm workers who have historically been left out of the National Labor Relations Act and-

[00:34:32] Crystal Fincher: That was huge.

[00:34:33] April Sims: Huge, huge. And Crystal you know that those exemptions are rooted in racism and are tied to Jim Crow and slavery, right? Leaving farm workers out of standard protections for workers, because most farm and agricultural workers, when those laws were passed, were Black folks, right? Sharecroppers like my grandparents. So those types of policies are passed by members of our Legislature, right? And having members of the Legislature that hold our values and the values of our community - it's how we impact change, right? I'm trying to say this in a really eloquent way, but we need folks who care about the things that we care about elected into office and the only way we get those folks elected into office is to have maps that keep our communities whole. And the only way we have maps that keep our communities whole is if we get engaged in this redistricting process. So the work that we do right now engaging in the redistricting process sets the direction for the policies that we have in Washington State for generations to come and whether or not our communities are going to be protected as part of that process.

[00:35:50] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Well, I think you said it perfectly eloquently. I do not have anything to add to that - that is excellent. And I just sincerely appreciate you taking the time to help educate us about this redistricting process today.

[00:36:04] April Sims: So much appreciation to you, Crystal, and to the team for having me today, for giving me some space to talk a little bit about this wonky thing we call redistricting in Washington State, so - it's always a pleasure to see you too, by the way, so -

[00:36:19] Crystal Fincher: You too. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Yeah, excited and excellent work. Thank you for involving the community in this process and let's all make a point to make our voices heard.

[00:36:29] April Sims: Let's do it, I'm with it.

[00:36:32] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I, and now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts, just type in "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at and in the podcast episode notes. 

Thanks for tuning in, talk to you next time.