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Judge redraws WA’s legislative map after lawsuit over Latino voters

by By Daniel Beekman, Seattle Times, TNS
| March 16, 2024 11:18 AM

YAKIMA — Washington's political map is set to change in response to allegations of discrimination against Latino voters, and a result could be Democrats winning more seats in the Legislature.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik approved new boundaries for several state legislative districts in a written order Friday, after ruling last year that the current map impaired the ability of Latino voters in the Yakima Valley and Pasco areas to elect their preferred candidates.

The new map will create an additional Democrat-leaning district in Central Washington and could affect the balance of power in other districts, experts said. Some advocates said Friday's order would cement the strength of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Democrats applauded the new map, while Republicans slammed it, with a Latina state senator from Pasco calling it a "partisan gerrymander."

The new boundaries will be used in legislative elections this year unless conservative opponents convince the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to put them on hold.

"The map was not drawn or adopted to favor or discriminate against either political party, but rather to unite the Latino community of interest in the Yakima Valley region," Lasnik wrote.

Friday's order stems from a 2022 lawsuit by a group of Latino voters over the map drawn in 2021 by the bipartisan Washington State Redistricting Commission. The lawsuit claimed the commission could have given Latino voters a substantial majority in the 15th Legislative District, stretching through the Yakima Valley to Pasco, and instead drew boundaries that gave Latino voters only a slim majority.

Lasnik agreed in August, finding the 15th District boundaries in violation of the Voting Rights Act and setting a deadline for the commission to redraw them. Democratic leaders in control of the Legislature declined to reconvene the commission, so Lasnik wound up supervising the work himself, asking the plaintiffs to propose options and appointing an expert to help assess those options.

The judge ultimately chose a new map that gives Latino voters in the key areas a majority in the 14th District, rather than in the 15th District, making large and small changes to the boundaries of 13 total districts in the process.

There are actually slightly fewer Latino voters in the new 14th District than there were in the old 15th District, Lasnik acknowledged in his order Friday. Still, the overall composition of the new district is such that Latino voters can be expected to wield more influence, partly because Washington holds state Senate elections for the 14th District in U.S. presidential election years, when Latino turnout is usually higher, the judge wrote.

Voting rights organizations that supported the plaintiffs in the lawsuit hailed the new map.

"We are thrilled with the judge's decision," Sonni Waknin, program manager at the UCLA Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. "This ruling is not just a victory for the Latino communities in Washington state but it also sends hope to all underrepresented communities fighting for fair representation."

Washington State Democratic Party Chair Shasti Conrad likewise called Friday a "great day for democracy," praising Lasnik for approving a "sensible map" that passes constitutional muster and "prioritizes diverse voices." She said Democrats would be "working overtime to engage" voters in the 14th District this year and enlarge their existing majorities in the Legislature.

Because local Latino voters tend to prefer Democratic candidates, "the probability is likely" that the redrawn 14th District will elect Democrats this year, said Mark Gaber, senior director of redistricting at the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.

Reactions across the aisle blasted the judge, with state Senate Leader Republican John Braun describing Friday's order as a "miscarriage of justice" that will move multiple incumbent GOP lawmakers and large numbers of voters out of their existing districts. The 14th District will likely turn blue, and several other red districts could turn purple, based on the new boundaries, Braun said in an interview.

"This appears to be a gigantic partisan win for the Democrats," he said, arguing the map should have been redrawn by the redistricting commission, rather than by a judge. "It's a complete hand grenade in the middle of the Yakima Valley, straight at Republicans, to make sure they do as much damage as possible."

The new map will move state Sen. Nikki Torres, a Latina Republican elected in 2022, from the 15th District to the 16th District, where another GOP incumbent already resides, Torres said in a statement. The next 15th District elections are scheduled for 2026, so Torres will hold her seat until then.

"The Voting Rights Act was supposed to empower affected minority populations. This map decreases the number of Hispanics "in the key district," she said. "This map is a mockery of the Voting Rights Act. This map disenfranchised Hispanics — all to help the Democratic Party gain seats."

In ruling for the plaintiffs last year, Lasnik found that the Yakima Valley's Latino voters are a cohesive political group (with about 70% usually choosing the same candidates) who have experienced discrimination and struggled to elect candidates responsive to their needs. Torres said it's wrong to assume that Latino voters in Central and Eastern Washington are mostly Democrats, describing them as a "swing block."

The Yakama Nation was involved in conversations about the new boundaries because there was concern the adjustments could split up tribal members and tribal lands. The map approved Friday "fits the bill" because it keeps Yakama lands "pretty much all" in the 14th District, Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman Gerald Lewis said in an interview.

A separate group of Latino voters unsuccessfully appealed Lasnik's 2023 ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and acted as "intervenors" in his mapmaking process, with conservative support. The intervenors, including state Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, will now appeal Friday's map and seek an emergency stay, said state Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, an attorney for the group. The May deadline by which candidates must file to run in this year's legislative elections is quickly approaching.

    Nikki Torres