(The Center Square) – Democratic leaders say they are willing to let a federal court redraw the disputed boundaries of south-central Washington’s 15th Legislative District to better reflect its Latino population for voting purposes.
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik concluded that legislative maps drawn in 2021 by the Washington State Redistricting Commission for the Yakima Valley diluted, or “cracked,” the Latino vote and diminished the community’s opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. The ruling came in the case, Soto Palmer v. Hobbs.
The judge instructed the involved parties to serve notice by Jan. 8 whether a reconvened redistricting commission is able provide a redrawn map to the state Legislature for adoption by Feb. 7. If not, said Lasnik, the court will adopt a new map for use by Washington’s secretary of state office in the 2024 elections.
Earlier this week, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said he did not intend to call a special session for state legislators to consider reconvening the redistricting commission. Inslee’s position was supported by the legislature’s top two Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane and House Speaker Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma.
“We are committed to the goals of the (federal) Voting Rights Act,” Billig and Jinkins said in a statement Wednesday. “The plaintiffs made their case in court, and the U.S. District Court for Western Washington found 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.”
That position was also voiced this week by the legislature’s bicameral Democratic Latino Caucus, which issued a statement saying, ““Latino voters from the Yakima Valley won enfranchisement for their community in court, and we support their right to propose their preferred remedy directly to the court. The bipartisan Redistricting Commission failed to draw a legislative map that complied with the federal VRA.”
But in separate comments, Senate Republican Leader John Braun pushed for a special legislative session to reconvene the redistricting commission, which would require a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate.
“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,” Braun said.
Although Lasnik determined that Latino representation in the 15th District was insufficient to satisfy the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Braun noted the district’s population is over 51% Latino and represented in the legislature by Republican Sen. Nikki Torres, a Latina from the Pasco area.
The legislature does not start its regular session until January, which would be too late for serious consideration of a redistricting proposal. Either Inslee or lawmakers themselves can call for a special session. Braun believes the Republican caucus would “wholeheartedly” support a special session to consider reconvening the redistricting commission, saying, “I urge that we do so immediately.”
Billig and Jinkins, in turn, said the most “expedient and non-political way to move forward is for the court to directly adopt a map that meets statutory and constitutional obligations, providing Yakima Valley voters the ability to elect their candidate of choice.”
The region itself includes parts of Adams, Benton, Franklin, Grant and Yakima counties within the adjacent 13th, 14th and 15th legislative districts. Along with Sen. Torres, the 15th District is represented by two Republican House members: Reps. Bruce Chandler of Granger and Bryan Sandlin of Zillah.
In his ruling, Lasnik wrote that the 15th District boundary – combined with other social, economic, and historical factors in the Yakima Valley – results in “an inequality in the electoral opportunities … (for) Latino voters in the area.”
Jose Trevino, a defendant intervenor in the case, filed notice last Friday of plans to appeal Lasnik’s decision to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Trevino is joined by fellow appellants Ismael Campos and 13th District state Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, who contend the redistricting commission focused too much on race in drawing the legislative map. They are represented by attorney and House Republican Leader Drew Stokesbary of Auburn.
There was also a separate and parallel lawsuit involving plaintiff Benancio Garcia III, a congressional candidate in 2022 who contends the Legislative District 15 is an illegal racial gerrymander. In a 2-1 panel vote last week, Lasnik and fellow federal Judge David Estudillo dismissed the case, saying it was moot because the map will be redrawn under the Soto Palmer/Hobbs case. But Judge Lawrence VanDyke dissented, saying the case “still has some life in it.”
In Washington state, a redistricting commission is appointed every 10 years to redraw legislative and congressional district boundaries based on most-recent census data. The state legislature appoints four commissioners – two Democrats and two Republicans – who then appoint a fifth, non-voting, non-partisan chair.