Yakima County, a hotbed for voting rights cases, is at the center of yet more lawsuits after a messy state redistricting process.

By Mai Hoang / Crosscut.com / April 13, 2022

When Gabriel Muñoz ran for the Washington state Senate in the 15th Legislative District in 2014, he garnered significant support from Latino residents in Yakima County. Many were drawn to Muñoz’s priorities, which included addressing poverty in the region, and others simply wanted to support a Latino political candidate.

There was just one problem: Many interested residents either could not vote because of their citizenship or immigration status or didn’t live in his district. 

Some people — including friends from his hometown of Wapato — were in the neighboring 14th Legislative District. Others were in a small portion of the county that was included in the 13th Legislative District. 

Muñoz is one of several Latino residents who ran for office after the 15th Legislative District was redrawn as a Latino-majority district a decade ago. Still, no Latino candidate has been able to win state office in the district.

“The eligible voting base wasn’t there yet,” he said. “Regardless of how enthusiastic, how motivated they were to participate, it just wasn’t enough, even though we had a Latino-majority population in the 15th [Legislative] District.”

Latino voter advocates had hoped to address this issue in the latest round of state redistricting, which wrapped up last fall. The standard this time for a minority-majority district was based on the percentage of minority citizens of voting age, not just the number of minority residents, as was the standard used during redistricting a decade ago.  

Some Latino leaders believe the bipartisan Washington State Redistricting Commission still fell short of providing those voters the power to vote for — and elect — their desired candidates. 

A pair of lawsuits are before the U.S. District Court in Tacoma, debating whether the commission met its mission and followed federal law. 

A group of voters in Yakima County, including Susan Soto Palmer, 14th Legislative District candidate for the state House back in 2016, filed suit in January, contendinng that the state Redistricting Commission did not do enough to strengthen voting power of Latino voters in Yakima County. The case is known as Palmer Et al. v. Hobbs Et al., referring to Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, who is named as one of the defendants. 

Meanwhile, Berancio Garcia, a Latino Republican in Yakima County, filed suit last month with an opposing claim. In his lawsuit, he posits the commission committed an “illegal racial gerrymander” because it drew the map based on race without independent analysis of what was needed to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which demands racial equality in voting. Hobbs is the sole defendant in that case. 

Voting rights lawsuits are nothing new in Yakima County, where nearly 51% of about 257,000 residents — and 45% of residents over 18 — are Hispanic or Latino. But previous efforts focused on voting districts at the local level. 

This time, the court will look at whether Latino voters have been deprived of representation at the state level by being spilt among the newly redrawn legislative districts. 

David Morales, treasurer of the Southcentral Coalition People of Color for Redistricting, a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, Palmer v. Hobbs, said the harm is clearly a lack of Latino representation. 

Latino voters often gravitate to any Latino representative or candidate, even if that person can’t or is not willing to represent them, Morales said.  

“There isn’t anyone at the state legislative level to take that communitywide input,” Morales said. “A lot of that ends up going nowhere.” 

Drew Stokesbary, Garcia’s attorney, said that while Latino voters should have equal voting access, that doesn’t mean doing so by violating other laws. Stokesbary is also a state representative in the 31st Legislative District, but spoke as an attorney and not as a state legislator.

“Just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean that it’s always legal or always constitutional,“ said Stokesbary. “Just because my clients or I find some particular law, aspect of the law or application of a law unconstitutional doesn’t mean we disagree with the policy goals. We believe those goals need to be achieved in a constitutional matter.”

Have Latino candidates ever been elected in Yakima County at the state level?

While no Latino candidate has been elected at the state level in the 15th Legislative District, a few have been elected in Central Washington, including in the 13th and 14th districts.

Mary Skinner served as a state representative from the 14th Legislative District from 1995 to 2008. Skinner, a Republican, was the daughter of Mexican migrant workers. She died in 2009 after fighting cancer for several years. 

Alex Ybarra has been a state representative in the 13th Legislative District since 2019. The 13th District includes a small portion of north Yakima County, near the Kittitas County border. 

Republicans, including state Sen. Curtis King, have highlighted Skinner and Ybarra as examples of why Latinos’ candidate of choice may not necessarily be a Democrat.  

The recently approved 2022 15th Legislative District map. (Courtesy of Yakima County)

“When good Latino candidates come forward, there is a record of their election success,” King wrote in a December opinion piece in the Yakima Herald-Republic. “Both former Rep. Skinner and Rep. Ybarra were elected with large bipartisan majorities. This is an inconvenient fact for Democrats because it shows that the Latino population in our region will elect Latino legislative leaders, as long as they represent them well.”

Ybarra and two other conservative Latino voters in Central Washington have sought to intervene in Palmer v. Hobbs. 

In a court filing, they said they wanted to intervene because they felt the defendants would not represent their interests in the case.

In court hearings, Secretary of State Steve Hobbs voiced concern on the impact court action would have on timing — namely that election filing for the upcoming primary election is just weeks away — but said he would not comment on the merits of the plaintiffs’ case. 

Like Garcia in his lawsuit, the interveners assert plaintiffs do not sufficiently show that Latino voters have less opportunity to vote for candidates of their choice. They believe that by intervening in the Palmer v. Hobbs case, they would serve as a better adversarial party than any of the defendants, which also include state Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig and House Speaker Laurie Jinkins.

Both Billig and Jinkins, have asked to be dismissed from the case, arguing that they were not involved with the drawing of the new districts. Billig also stated he, too, was concerned with how the 15th District was drawn. 

Muñoz said that when he talked to Latino residents during his 2014 state Senate campaign, many did not feel sufficiently represented by those in office, whether they were Latino or not.  

He said the Latino communities in Yakima County contend with crime, low high school and graduation rates and poverty, and have remained unable to fully mobilize and vote with candidates that would better address these issues. 

“You have to question who is being heard or listened to the most,” Muñoz said. 

Who has been representing the 15th District?

In 2012, the 15th Legislative District was drawn during redistricting to be a Latino-majority district, but one based on total population, not voting-age population, as was the standard during the 2022 redistricting process. 

That was achieved in 2012 by drawing a smaller district that covered the eastern portion of Yakima County, which included several Latino communities, such as east Yakima, Wapato, Toppenish and Sunnyside. 

Several Latino candidates, including Muñoz, ran for seats in the district. However, none has won. 

Stokesbary said the fact that Latino candidates have not been elected in the 15th District may have less to do with race and more to do with partisanship.  

And Stokesbary contended that political cohesiveness among the Latino community is not static, and that should be kept in mind when redrawing districts.

“Even if it’s true today that Latinos in this particular area meet some particular threshold of cohesiveness, that’s changing, and it’s far from a guarantee that [those] results will be true in two to four years, let alone 10 years, which is how long these maps are in effect for,” he said. 

Plaintiffs in Palmer v. Hobbs have argued in court, however, that they do not have to look at cause, such as political party, to address whether Latinos in Yakima County have the power to vote for the candidates of their choice. 

For some eight decades, the 15th District has been a Republican stronghold, other than a short period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Democrats held both 15th District seats in the state House. 

Democrat Forrest Baugher, a farmer from Parker in the Lower Yakima Valley, served as state representative from 1985 to 1991. He died in 2017. Democrat Margaret Shaw Rayburn, a teacher from Grandview, who died in 2013, served from 1985 to 1995.  

Rep. Bruce Chandler, a Republican from Granger, and Sen. Jim Honeyford, a Republican from Sunnyside, have held those 15th District seats in the Legislature since 1999. Honeyford also served several years in the state House.  

Rep. Jeremie Dufault has served in the district’s second House seat since 2019. He won the general election easily after beating incumbent and fellow Republican David Taylor in the 2018 primary. 

Dufault, who is from Selah, is no longer in the redrawn 15th District and has opted not to relocate, which creates an open seat in the upcoming general election.  

Honeyford ran against Latino candidates in 2014 and 2018, while Chandler had several unopposed races in the 2010s. 

Republicans, including Stokesbary, contend that Democrats support efforts to empower Latinos in the Yakima Valley because it creates a more politically competitive district. 

Stokesbary said it wasn’t ideal for Republicans that Dufault,  a popular legislator and significant fundraiser for the party, was drawn out of the district. 

“Setting aside the race-based concerns,  it is a 51-49 Republican district,” he said. “That’s a more competitive district than any other in the eastern side of the state.”

Left: Charles Ross, current Yakima County auditor and former 14th Legislative District representative. (Courtesy of Yakima County) Right: Drew Stokesbary, an attorney and Republican state representative from Auburn. (Courtesy of Drew Stokesbary)

What about the 14th Legislative District? 

Yakima County residents, namely those in the city of Yakima and the surrounding area, have historically been in the 14th Legislative District. 

The district was expanded considerably during redistricting in 2012 to include most of the western half of Yakima County, all of Skamania and Klickitat counties and a portion of eastern Clark County. 

That was a notable adjustment for legislators who served in the district, said Charles Ross, a state representative of the district from 2007 to 2014. Ross, a Republican from Naches, in the northern part of Yakima County, served several years representing the redrawn 14th District. 

The recently approved 2022 14th Legislative District map. (Courtesy of Yakima County)

Ross is now the Yakima County auditor, a nonpartisan office. His office oversees elections, among other departments, in the county.  He commented as a former legislator, not in his role as auditor.

Ross said the top issues for voters in Yakima County — crime and public safety — were different from those in the communities along the Columbia Gorge that was part of his district. Those voters were more focused on environmental and land rights issues. 

The large geographic size of the district also created challenges in setting aside time to meet with different groups of voters, Ross said. 

A small group of residents in the northern part of Yakima County is located within the 13th Legislative District. Ybarra, the Latino legislator in that district, is from Quincy in Grant County.

Why are voters unhappy? 

The redrawn 15th Legislative District, now at the center of recent legal action, includes parts of five counties: Yakima, Benton, Franklin, Adams and Grant. The Latino majority was cobbled together by incorporating parts of Yakima and Pasco, along with Othello in Adams County and Mattawa in Grant County. 

Some Latino voting rights advocates take issue with the district’s exclusion of other parts of Yakima County, such as the communities of Toppenish and Wapato — areas that have a more politically active Latino voter base. 

Stokesbary said the new 15th Legislative District combines areas that had not been part of the same district previously. He said the district was drawn without the state redistricting commission conducting an independent analysis of whether the Voting Rights Act applies in this case.

He argued that the UCLA Voting Rights Project report presented during the redistricting process wasn’t sufficient. The organization had voiced concern that none of the maps commissioners initially proposed created a Latino majority district that would satisfy federal voting rights laws. The organization now co-represents plaintiffs in the Palmer v. Hobbs case. 

“All they got is a report from a self-interested advocacy group,” Stokesbary said. “The U.S. Supreme Court [in the past] has said that isn’t enough.” 

Whether the federal law was appropriately followed will likely be decided in the courts. 

Meanwhile, the 14th Legislative District was redrawn to include most of Yakima County and Klickitat County. This redrawn district kept the entire Yakama Reservation intact. The communities of Toppenish and Wapato are also located within the reservation. 

Skamania County and part of Clark County are now part of the 17th Legislative District.  

Plaintiffs in Palmer v. Hobbs have proposed an alternative map that they said would make the 14th Legislative District a Latino-majority district instead. 

The 14th District they have proposed to the court would again keep the entire Yakima Reservation and much of Yakima County, but extend into part of the redrawn 15th District. That includes Sunnyside in Yakima County and Pasco, a heavily Hispanic part of Franklin County. That would give the 14th District a 52.4% Latino-citizen voting-age majority — compared with just over 50% for the redrawn 15th District.

The reason to shift the majority district to the 14th is that state Senate seats in even-numbered districts are up for election during presidential years, when Latino turnout is higher, said Morales, whose organization, the Southcentral Coalition People of Color for Redistricting, is a plaintiff in the Palmer v. Hobbs case. 

“Makes it numerically more likely a Latino candidate gets elected,” Morales said. “It’s really that simple.” 

For Stokesbary, the 14th District map plaintiffs are seeking the court to approve, would be even more of a problem. 

“Plaintiffs have failed to even allege, much less demonstrate by ‘a clear showing,’ that Latinos in the relatively dense and urban city of Yakima share the same characteristics, needs and political interests as Latinos in the small, rural farming communities along the Yakima River, or what either group has in common (besides race) with Latinos in Pasco or Mattawa, Royal City and Othello,” Stokesbary wrote in a court filing for the Palmer v. Hobbs case. 

Sonni Waknin, an attorney with the UCLA Voting Rights Project, co-wrote a motion asking the court to reject intervention by Latino voters represented by Stokesbary, asserting their arguments can be addressed in Garcia’s lawsuit. 

“I think what’s really important is to focus on the harm here, which is Latino voters [in Yakima Valley] not having the ability under federal law to elect candidates of choice,” she said in an interview with Crosscut. “Unfortunately, that seems to be an issue getting lost here.” 

FEATURED IMAGE: Gabriel Muñoz poses for a portrait in Yakima on April 11, 2022. Muñoz, who grew up in Wapato, ran for a Senate seat in the 15th District in 2014. He now lives just outside of Selah, which is now part of the 14th District under the redrawn map. (Jake Parrish for Crosscut)

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