In August, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik sided with Latino voters in the 15th Legislative District who filed suit in January 2022 over the district’s boundaries, ruling that the boundaries violated the federal Voting Rights Act. Plaintiffs in Palmer vs. Hobbs contend that while the district drawn in 2021 met the percentage of voters needed to be a majority-minority district, the bipartisan Washington State Redistricting Commission drew it in a way that diluted Latino votes and deprived them of an opportunity to vote for the candidate of their choice.
After the Legislature — namely Democrats — did not reconvene the redistricting commission, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington is now leading an alternative process aimed at readying a new map for the 2024 election season.
Meanwhile, conservative Latinos are still pursuing court appeals in hopes of reversing Judge Lasnik’s ruling, which they contend is an attempt by Democrats to get their candidates elected in a conservative region.
Here’s a rundown of what’s happened since the August ruling and what’s ahead in the coming months.
Who is involved?
Several Latino voters in the 15th Legislative District — including the case’s namesake, Susan Soto Palmer — filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in January 2022. Soto Palmer is well-known among Latinos in the Yakima Valley as she is active with the local Democratic Party and previously ran for office.
While Secretary of State Steven Hobbs was among the defendants, Hobbs ultimately took no position on the merits of the voters’ claims. As a result, a group of conservative Latino voters asked to intervene in the case so their interests would be addressed. Among the intervenors is State Sen. Alex Ybarra, a Latino legislator from Quincy, in the neighboring 13th Legislative District. Also noteworthy is House Republican Leader Drew Stokesbary, serving as counsel for the conservative voters.
Lasnik will continue to be involved as he oversees the drawing of a new map. However, the Court retained Karin Mac Donald to help in the process, including evaluating proposed maps from Latino voters and advocates. Mac Donald has aided the state and communities in California in building districts that comply with federal voting rights laws.
When the deadline for proposals passed on Dec. 1, the Palmer plaintiffs had submitted five proposed maps. No other organization, including the conservative Latino voters who intervened in the case, submitted proposals.
All the proposed maps would move the Latino-majority district south from the 15th to the 14th Legislative District. The advocates who brought the lawsuit said switching to an even-numbered district ensures that state Senate elections would fall on a presidential year when Latino voter turnout is higher.
The percentage of Latino residents of citizen voting age range from 47% to 51.65% for the 14th District in the proposed maps, compared to 50.02% for the current 15th Legislative District. Plaintiffs say their priority was to reunite Latino population centers between Yakima in Yakima County and Pasco in Franklin County, which were previously spilt in separate districts.
In a court briefing, attorneys for the Palmer plaintiffs pointed out that a Latino votermajority district that is compliant with the U.S. Voting Rights Act isn’t just about meeting “an arbitrary demographic threshold,” but is determined by how well the candidates Latinos vote for perform.
All the proposed maps also keep the Yakama Nation Reservation intact in one legislative district, another goal of the redistricting commission. Several maps also include some or all Yakama Nation trust lands and fishing villages in the same district.
Four of the proposed maps draw a 14th Legislative District that includes Yakima, Pasco and the communities in between. The last option keeps the 14th Legislative District within Yakima County and puts Pasco in a different district.
In a court brief, Secretary of State Steven Hobbs outlined the impact redrawing the maps will have on the 14th District and its neighboring districts, whose boundaries will change as a result. The brief was based on an analysis by Nick Pharris, who works in the Elections Division of the Office of the Secretary of State.
In the document, they outline the countries impacted by each proposal. In all five proposals, Yakima, Benton and Klickitat Counties are impacted. Franklin, Adams, and Grant are impacted by four proposals, as are Clark, King, Pierce, and Thurston counties, namely due to redrawn lines that cross the Cascades into Western Washington.
Among the incumbents in the Legislature who would be displaced is State Sen. Nikki Torres, a Latina who was elected in the redrawn 15th Legislative District in 2022. Torres’ attorneys have asked the court to allow Torres to intervene in the case. In a court filing, Torres’ attorney said implementing any of the proposals would make her reelection in 2026 “more difficult — if not impossible.” Attorneys say four of the proposed maps would move her out of the 15th. One proposal does allow her to remain in the 15th District, which would no longer be a Latino voter-majority district.
In filing for appeals in both the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth District and the U.S. Supreme Court, conservative Latino voters contend that the case is a veiled attempt to get more Democrats elected in Central Washington. They point to the election of Torres, a Latina Republican, as an indicator that the minority-majority district is already performing.
They also point to the districts displacing several Republican incumbents in Central Washington as showing the Democrats’ intent. In a court filing, the Republican filing also noted that 10 Republicans, including all three legislators in both the 14th and 15th districts, would be moved into new districts by at least one of the proposed new maps.
However, the Palmer plaintiffs’ analysis shows that even with the changes, the overall partisan flavor of Central Washington would remain Republican. In addition, they say Torres will be able to finish out her term until it expires in 2026.
“Since nearly every legislator surrounding [the 14th and 15th districts] is Republican, Republican districts are necessarily impacted,” attorneys for the Palmer plaintiffs wrote in a court filing. “But all the partisan efforts outside [the districts] are marginal and inconsequential.”
The attorneys also point out that Lasnik did not buy into conservative arguments that Torres’ election meant the 15th District was compliant with voting rights laws. In his ruling, Lasnik said the progress in Latino representation in the state Legislature doesn’t negate roadblocks voters continue to experience in the 15th district.
Lasnik, with the help of Mac Donald, the voting expert, will now evaluate the proposal maps — and the rebuttals and responses to those proposals. The court aims to adopt a new redistricting map and transmit it to the Secretary of State’s office by March 25, so the new map can be used for 2024 elections.
The Republican intervenors continue to pursue an appeal of Lasnik’s ruling; however, with the remedial map process underway, that group filed a motion to put the appeals process on hold temporarily while the U.S. District Court completes its process.
The intervenors said they plan to appeal the Court’s decision on a new redistricting plan and then consolidate it with their appeal of the original ruling on the Palmer case.
Intervenors also have an appeal of Palmer before the U.S. Supreme Court. A separate request for a related case, Garcia vs. Hobbs, which was deemed moot by the ruling on Palmer, was also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices are expected to discuss both requests during its conference — when they decide which cases to review — this Friday.