Judge considers if Central WA redistricting breaks federal law

This case is the latest in a series of state and federal lawsuits seeking to address Latino voter dilution in Central Washington.

ballots being processed by election worker

Ballots being processed at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton for Washington’s March 10, 2020 primary election. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

A trial to decide whether Washington violated federal voting rights laws when it established a Latino majority legislative district in Central Washington began Friday in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert S. Lasnik is expected to hear arguments through next week in the lawsuit filed by Latino voters in January 2022 regarding the 15th Legislative District, which was redrawn by the state’s redistricting commission in 2021. The plaintiffs in Palmer v. Hobbs contend the 15th Legislative District, as the commission designed it in the once-a-decade redistricting process, dilutes Latino voter power and violates the federal Voting Rights Act. 

The voters argue in their lawsuit that while the percentage of Latino voters in the 15th — just over 50% — meets the requirements for a Latino majority district, the inclusion of areas with lower Latino voter turnout compared to adjacent areas with more active Latino voters weakens their voting power and reduces their ability to vote for the candidate of their choice. 

This case is the latest in a series of state and federal lawsuits seeking to address Latino voter dilution in Central Washington. Past cases led to local election system changes, including district-based voting for both the Yakima City Council and the Board of Yakima County Commissioners. 

Filings in the case indicate state attorneys will dispute the plaintiff’s claim that the redistricting commission intentionally discriminated against Latino voters in their political map drawing process but will not dispute the plaintiff’s argument that the district as drawn negatively impacted Latino voters' ability to vote for their chosen candidate. 

Latino voters intervening in the Palmer case will also present arguments during the trial. The voters, including State Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, contend the commission committed an “illegal racial gerrymander” because the 15th Legislative District was drawn based on race without independent analysis that doing so would comply with voting rights laws. Intervener Berancio Garcia, a Latino Republican living in Yakima County, filed a separate lawsuit against the state that presented the same argument. 

In a case brief filed earlier this week, attorneys for the interveners note as evidence the victory of Republican Nicki Torres, a Latina, in the 15th Legislative District Senate race last November. The analysis, attorneys say, illustrates reduced support for the Democratic candidate among Latino and non-Latino voters. They believe the analysis supports their argument that Latino voters in the Yakima Valley and surrounding area are not “politically cohesive” and that partisan preferences, rather than race, are driving voting behavior and counters a key argument of the plaintiffs that the redrawn map violates voting rights laws. 

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