A nagging impasse on Washington State’s bipartisan redistricting commission may have been resolved, according to comments made during this morning’s public meeting in Olympia, a development that would pave the way for commissioners to consolidate proposals for legislative districts in Western Washington as soon as Friday.

Though weekend talks failed to produce any measurable progress toward the commission’s objective – defining the borders of state’s 49 legislative and 10 congressional districts to account for reapportionment following the most recent U.S. Census – bottlenecks in the negotiations may be close to breaking.

Senate appointees Republican Slade Gorton and Democrat Tim Ceis have been working on drawing the boundaries for Western Washington’s legislative districts from King County northward; House appointees Democrat Dean Foster and Republican Tom Huff have concentrated the southwestern quadrant of the state.

Gorton announced that he and Ceis have agreed on a proposal for their assignment, and also indicated that they feel confident enough that this Friday they will propose to begin work on the congressional districts, including making room for Washington’s new 10th congressional district. Ceis participated in the meeting by telephone, and agreed with Gorton’s assessment of their status and echoed the desire to move forward.

Foster gave a similarly positive report, providing reason to be optimistic that the House team of Foster and Huff will be also be ready by Friday to take up legislative redistricting for Eastern Washington.

“I think we made fantastic gains,” Foster said. “[W]e’re within a couple of little areas and a quality control check of being done in our area.”

Foster mentioned a population swath of “roughly 3,000” in Clark County that he implied is being reserved as a cushion, a buffer zone to offset partisan stresses one might assume act like tectonic friction between the red and blue districts checkering Southwestern Washington.

Where precisely are the fault lines posing political danger in Southwestern Washington? Although the commission has done a remarkable job maintaining radio silence, the history of redistricting in southwest Washington provides enough raw information to speculate that the 19th legislative district may be the scene of at least one danger zone.

The land masses of the 18th, 19th and 20th legislative districts – each reliably partisan in their legislative representation – expand or contract during reapportionment, and the fault lines between them contain a great deal of opposing political energy. The indirect pressure on the commission from once-patient incumbents and would-be contenders (the process began early this year with a target completion date of November 1st) only increases the tension.

Since 1991, the 19th has comprised all of Pacific County and parts of Grays Harbor, Wahkiakum, and Cowlitz Counties, but like the economically-distressed districts of the Olympic Peninsula that it most closely resembles, the 19th has been losing population relative to the rest of Washington. In contrast, the districts to the east and southeast in Lewis, Cowlitz and Clark Counties (the 18th and 20th districts) have been experiencing moderate to fast growth rates.

Through the eyes of the redistricting commission, districts losing people must get bigger (in terms of population relative to the rest of the state) and those gaining population must get smaller.

In the 2000 Census, reapportionment required the 19th to absorb more than 12,000 residents, while the 18th and 20th needed to shed 11,800 and 4,600 respectively. As the two maps of southwestern Washington show, the Redistricting Commission in 2001 chose to grow the 19th southward, taking on population mostly from the solid Republican 18th.

The districts surrounding the 19th were, in some cases, radically reshaped by the 2001 redistricting – the 19th itself was cosmetically and politically unaltered (see the maps inset to the right), as though established as a protected preserve for the endangered coastal Democrat than a naturally occurring range of blue voters.

In the current redistricting scenario, the commission faces a similar challenge – the 19th needs to “gain” about 10,000 in population and the 18th has a malapportioned population of more than 22,000. The 17th district in the Vancouver suburbs has also substantially grown, another development that almost certainly is complicating negotiations.

The process, though driven by census numbers and demographic statistics, is driven by its human commissioners and staff, and therein may be the light at the end of the tunnel on the commission’s path to a midnight December 31st deadline.

Where political hurdles exist, human self-interest can provide the incentive to leap over them.

“I don’t want to work on New Year’s Day,” Huff said at the close of today’s meeting.

There are thousands of Washingtonians who almost certainly echo the Commissioner’s sentiment.