OLYMPIA — A legislative district in Central Washington was found to violate the rights of Latino voters, and a court is now expected to decide how to redraw its boundaries.
The newly drawn map could potentially add a few more Democrats to the mix in Olympia.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik found that the 15th Legislative District’s boundaries violate the federal Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law born out of the Civil Rights Movement. This past week, legislative leaders said they would not call a special session to reconvene a state commission to redraw the boundaries, in effect kicking it back to the court.
The decision represents a milestone in decades of effort to boost political representation of Latino voters in the Yakima Valley area, and it could impact the political makeup of the Legislature in the short term.
Matt Barreto, professor of political science at UCLA who was hired as a consultant for the redistricting commission by state Senate Democrats, and who testified about his research and advice to the commission in the case, described the August decision in Soto Palmer v. Hobbs as “a historic turning point for Washington state politics.”
“For the first time ever, there will be a majority Latino district in which the Latino voters will get to choose their candidate to send to Olympia,” Barreto said. “That has never happened.”
Why does the district violate the law?
Every 10 years, states redesign their district maps for the state Legislature and Congress to accommodate population changes documented by the U.S. census.
The people who brought the Soto Palmer v. Hobbs lawsuit argued that the way Washington drew its maps diluted the Latino vote in the Yakima Valley by splitting its Latino communities into different districts. They argued the Latino population was big enough and geographically compact enough to make up a majority in a legislative district.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act allows voters to sue if they are being subjected to a voting process or procedure that denies them the ability to elect candidates of their choice, said Simone Leeper, legal counsel on the redistricting team at the Campaign Legal Center. The center, along with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the UCLA Voting Rights Project, and Washington lawyer Edwardo Morfin, filed the lawsuit in January 2022 on behalf of several Latino voters in the Yakima Valley area.
The way the 15th Legislative District is drawn, Hispanic voting-age citizens form a slight majority, but that figure doesn’t tell “the full story,” Leeper said.
When they initially drew the maps, state redistricting commissioners could have “easily” drawn a district that was around 70% Latino, which would have enabled them to elect the candidate they wanted, Barreto said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik found that a majority just above 50% wasn’t enough to “provide equal electoral opportunity where past discrimination, current social/economic conditions, and a sense of hopelessness keep Latino voters from the polls in numbers significantly greater than white voters.”
Laskin also said the people who brought the lawsuit provided “ample historical evidence of discriminatory English literacy tests, English-only election materials, and at-large systems of election that prevented or suppressed Latino voting.”
The plaintiffs pointed to prior lawsuits that sought to fight discriminatory voting practices.
In 2004, for instance, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Yakima County alleging it failed to provide “complete and accurate” Spanish-language materials and to effectively help Spanish-speaking voters, resulting in a consent decree requiring the county to set up a Spanish-language election program, according to the DOJ. Other lawsuits have challenged systems of elections in the city of Yakima and the county.
“It’s not about giving minority voters any sort of leg up or advantage over other voters,” Leeper said. “It’s just about making sure that minority voters have the same opportunity that all of the other voters have to have their voice heard.”
What happens next?
The court is expected to decide how the new map will be drawn. On Friday, Lasnik ordered the state to file a status report by Sept. 29 to formally notify the court of the Legislature’s position.
“If, as appears to be the case, the Legislature intends to leave the redistricting process to the Court, additional input and information from the parties will be requested,” he wrote.
Three Hispanic registered voters in Central Washington — Ismael Campos, Jose Trevino and Alex Ybarra — and a state representative from Quincy, in the 13th Legislative District, have appealed Lasnik’s decision. The 15th district currently borders five other districts, including the 13th.
In a July closing argument, the intervenors argued that Latinos in the district “already represent a majority of the citizen voting age population, possess equal and easy access to the polls (complete with bilingual voting materials), and thus have the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice by voting as a bloc.”
Once the new maps are in place, legislators elected based on the new district could shift the debate in Olympia on policy issues including agriculture, education and immigration, Barreto said.
The new maps could also influence the partisan makeup of the Legislature.
While it’s not a certainty, if Democrats field strong candidates with “strong ties to the Latino community,” he said, they could win seats in the new 15th district, which is currently represented by Republicans.
Who’s in the seat now?
Each legislative district has three lawmakers: a senator and two representatives.
Right now, the district is represented by Sen. Nikki Torres, of Pasco; Rep. Bruce Chandler, of Granger; and Rep. Bryan Sandlin, of Zillah. All three are Republicans.
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, all three legislators can serve out the rest of their term, even if they are drawn out of the district. State representatives serve two-year terms, so they’re up for reelection in 2024. State senators serve four-year terms, and Torres is up for reelection in 2026.
If they remain in the district, it’s possible they could face a steeper path to reelection in a new 15th district that is stronger-majority Latino.
Torres, a first-term lawmaker and self-described conservative who grew up in Pasco, the daughter of farmworkers, said in an interview in late August that she was waiting to see what the new maps looked like.
“We’re just going to wait and see,” Torres said. “I’m still going to be serving my constituents. They voted me in.”
A previous version of this article misspelled U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik’s name.