Federal court likely to redraw Central WA Latino-majority district

Democratic lawmakers said they chose not to reconvene the bipartisan Washington State Redistricting Commission after a judicial ruling for a new map.

Martha Jimenez shows ballot to citizenship class

Martha Jimenez, a bilingual outreach coordinator for Yakima County’s elections office, talks about ballots during a U.S. citizenship class on July 28, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Democratic leaders in the state Legislature said Wednesday they will pass the task of redrawing Washington’s only Latino-voter-majority district to a federal court rather than reconvene the bipartisan Washington State Redistricting Commission.

This announcement ran counter to the wishes of Senate Republican Leader John Braun, R-Centralia who earlier this week urged the Legislature to reconvene the Commission. 

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik ruled in favor of Latino voters in Central Washington who filed suit over the 15th Legislative District, agreeing that despite meeting the required percentage of Latino voters, the district was drawn in a way that dilutes their voting power. Lasnik’s ruling in Palmer v. Hobbs called for state lawmakers to reconvene the Commission to redraw the boundary, or the court would choose a new map.

In a joint written statement from Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, they felt the “most expedient and non-political way”  was for the court to adopt a map. 

“We are committed to the goals of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The plaintiffs made their case in court, and the US District Court for Western Washington found that the existing maps do not meet the standard set by the VRA. Now, voters in the Yakima Valley are entitled to fair and timely legislative maps,” Jinkins and Billig said in their statement. 

The Latino Democratic Caucus, which consists of 11 Latino and Latina Democratic lawmakers in the state House and Senate, also issued a statement stating support for Latino voters in the Yakima Valley to have the opportunity to submit proposed maps directly to the court.

“The bipartisan Redistricting Commission failed to draw a legislative map that complied with the federal [voting rights act],” the Caucus said in their statement. “We support voters seeking justice in a forum where it has already been achieved, devoid of partisanship and gamesmanship. We do not support reconvening the Redistricting Commission.” 

Democrats' views on how to proceed are in line with those of the Southcentral Coalition People of Color for Redistricting, one of the original plaintiffs in Palmer, although the group later withdrew from the lawsuit. 

In a written statement, the Yakima-based group expressed a lack of confidence in the commission to draw a compliant map. 

“Despite compelling evidence, the Commission ignored at least three Voting Rights Act-compliant maps submitted by our coalition and other community members,” the Coalition said in its written statement. “These maps were specifically designed to ensure fair representation for the Latino community in Central Washington.” 

Senate Republican Leader Braun, however, disagreed, arguing that reconvening the Commission was the less political move. 

“If majority leadership prevents the Legislature from reconvening the Redistricting Commission, it will be another effort on their part to abdicate our duty and authority to another branch of government for political gains,” he said in a written statement Monday. 

Meanwhile, Republican House Leader Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, is representing a group of Latino Republicans, including State Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, to appeal the ruling. The group intervened in the Palmer case in opposition to the plaintiffs. 

Stokesbary also represented Benancio Garcia III, a Yakima Valley resident who contended that the redrawn 15th District was an illegal gerrymander. The three-judge panel majority, which included Lasnik, dismissed the case last week, stating that since the legislative district was deemed invalid under the federal Voting Rights Act and will be redrawn, Garcia no longer has a “live grievance,” and the case is moot.

In 2021, the Commission redrew the 15th District, which covers the Yakima Valley, as a majority-Latino-voter district. But the voters who filed the suit said the way it was drawn — namely, leaving out neighboring Latino areas that were more politically active in favor of others that were less so — suppressed voting powers and violated federal voting rights laws. Political science and voting rights experts anticipated legal action, given that previously proposed maps by the bipartisan Commission were far from compliant with the federal Voting Rights Act. 

The 2022 elections used the map initially drawn by the Commission. In the two state representative races in the redrawn 15th District, incumbent Bruce Chandler and candidate Bryan Sandlin, both Republicans, ran uncontested and won their seats. 

Nikki Torres, a Republican Latina candidate from Pasco, defeated Democratic opponent Lindsey Keesling, a schoolteacher, to secure the state Senate seat.

With a Jan. 8, 2023 deadline for the Redistricting Commission to finish a revised map and to send it to the Legislature, a special session would be required for a vote to reconvene the Commission, which would include Republican and Democratic lawmakers from each legislative caucus. 

Gov. Jay Inslee’s staff already said Inslee would leave the decision to the Legislature, which would need a two-thirds vote of each chamber to call itself into session. 

Under a court-led process, the parties in the lawsuit have until Jan. 15, 2024 to submit maps and other supporting material.  

Whether produced by the Legislature or the federal court, a revised map needs to be transmitted to the Secretary of State’s office by March 25, 2024 to be in effect for 2024 elections.

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