Judge Robert Lasnik finds “ample evidence” that the lines for the 15th District impair the ability of Latino voters to participate equally with other voters.

By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard, August 10, 2023

A federal judge last Thursday ordered Washington to redraw a legislative district in the Yakima Valley region because its current boundaries undermine the ability of Latino voters to participate equally in elections.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik invalidated the map for the 15th Legislative District drawn by the bipartisan state Redistricting Commission in 2021. The district encompasses parts of five counties in south-central Washington and is represented by three Republicans.

The question in this case is whether the state has engaged in line-drawing which, in combination with the social and historical conditions in the Yakima Valley region, impairs the ability of Latino voters in that area to elect their candidate of choice on an equal basis with other voters. The answer is yes,” Lasnik wrote in his 32-page decision.

Lasnik’s ruling calls for the state to reconvene the Redistricting Commission and draw up new boundaries. Those are due to the state Legislature by Jan. 8, 2024, for enactment by Feb. 7.

But it’s unclear whether there’s support among lawmakers to bring the commission back. And, meanwhile, a separate but related court case adds yet another layer to the situation. Those involved in the process seemed mostly uncertain after the ruling about what would happen next.

If the commission is unable to meet the January deadline, the federal court will intercede. 

“Regardless whether the State or the Court adopts the new redistricting plan, it will be transmitted to the Secretary of State on or before March 25, 2024, so that it will be in effect for the 2024 elections,” Lasnik concluded.

An attorney for the coalition of Latino voters that brought the suit challenging the district boundaries called the ruling “a definitive win.”

“For the first time, Latinos in the region will have the voice that they deserve in the Legislature,” said Simone Leeper, an attorney with Campaign Legal Center.

She lauded the decision’s “repeated recognition of the history of discrimination and continuing struggle that Latinos have in the region and the incredible need for true representation to address those concerns.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who agreed with plaintiffs’ arguments about the map’s legality, declined comment.

Untrammeled turf

Thursday’s much-anticipated decision means Washington may, for the first time, summon its four-person Redistricting Commission back into service over a year after it ceased operation.

State law requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber of the Legislature to revive the commission. Gov. Jay Inslee would need to call a special session for lawmakers to gather before January.

“We are still reviewing the order, and we’ll discuss options with legislative leaders. No decisions have been made,” said Jaime Smith, Inslee’s executive director of communications.

If lawmakers return, getting supermajority support in both chambers to call back the commission will be a high bar to clear given the political stakes. Republicans hold the district’s seats now. During the trial, potential maps put forth by those who sued showed an easier path for Democrats to win.

The commission would have 60 days to do its work under state law and would be shut down again after 90 days. 

Commissioners reached Thursday declined to comment on what lies ahead.

‘Undisputed’ discrimination

Lasnik’s ruling is not the last legal word. A three-judge panel of the same federal court is considering a parallel challenge of the district borders. 

A different group of Latino voters contend redistricting commissioners got the boundaries wrong because they focused too much on race – they term it “racial gerrymandering” – in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal Constitution.

The panel, of which Lasnik is a member, could issue a decision soon. It wasn’t immediately clear Thursday how the outcome could impact the overall process.

Drawing boundaries for the 15th District was one of the commission’s most difficult agreements to reach before it adjourned in November 2021. Commissioners wound up creating a majority-minority district with Latinos comprising 73% of the total population and an estimated 51.5% of voting-age residents.

Two months later, the lawsuit was filed contending the final map violated the federal Voting Rights Act because it diluted the electoral power of those voters. The case included a trial in June featuring testimony from commissioners and voting experts.

Plaintiffs argued that while Latinos are a slight majority of the district’s voters, the final contours included areas where their turnout is historically lower and excluded communities where Latinos are more politically active. This fracturing can depress Latino turnout and weaken their voting strength, they argued.

Lasnik agreed.

“It is undisputed that Latino voters in the Yakima Valley region are numerous enough that they could have a realistic chance of electing their preferred candidates if a legislative district were drawn with that goal in mind,” he wrote. “Plaintiffs have shown that such a district could be reasonably configured.”

Three registered voters, including state Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, were allowed to enter the case as intervenors.

As in the parallel challenge, intervenors argued race was given too much weight in the drawing of boundaries and the map should be redrawn with a focus on compactness and communities of interest.

They argued that Hispanic voters can choose the candidate they want as they comprise a majority of the voting-age population now. They cited the example of Nikki Torres of Pasco, a Latina and Republican, who was elected to the state Senate in 2022 in the district boundaries established by the redistricting commission. 

Lasnik wasn’t swayed.

“There is ample evidence to support the conclusion that Latino voters in the Yakima Valley region faced official discrimination that impacted and continues to impact their rights to participate in the democratic process,” he wrote.

“Intervenors generally ignore this testimony and the experts’ reports, baldly asserting that there is “no evidence” of other voting practices or procedures that discriminate against Latino voters in the Yakima Valley region,” the judge added.

This post was updated.

FEATURED IMAGE: ‘I Voted’ stickers on top of a ballot box. (Amanda Loman/InvestigateWest)

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