A new federal lawsuit alleges Washington’s recently approved legislative district maps violate the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the clout of Latino voters in Central Washington.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for Western Washington, says the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission intentionally drew maps which “cracked apart” Latino voters in the Yakima Valley and Pasco areas by splitting them among multiple legislative districts.
Absent court intervention, the region’s growing Latino population will continue to lag in political representation due to “a pattern of racially polarized voting that allows a bloc of white voters usually to defeat Latino voters’ preferred candidates,” the 44-page complaint states.
Latino voters generally favor Democratic candidates for the Legislature, the lawsuit notes, while white voters in the region, who vote more reliably, overwhelmingly back Republicans.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight Latino and Latina residents of Yakima and Franklin counties by attorneys with national voting rights advocacy groups, including the UCLA Voting Rights Project, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Campaign Legal Center, as well as Kennewick attorney Edwardo Morfin.
“The Washington State Redistricting Commission unfortunately joins a long list of state authorities over the last 20 years that have sought to stem the growing power of the Latino vote in the face of demographic trends,” legal defense fund staff attorney Ernest Herrera said in a statement. “We ask a federal court to give Latinos in Washington state the electoral opportunity that the Commission denied them.”
The lawsuit seeks a court order for a new map that includes a majority Latino legislative district “that does not dilute, cancel out, or minimize the voting strength of Latino voters.”
Elections within Central Washington have received scrutiny at the state and local level as Latinos are becoming a majority of the population, yet remain underrepresented in elected office. Latinos now make up 51% of the population in Yakima County and 54% in Franklin County. A smaller percentage of Latinos are registered to vote, however, and the lawsuit notes their ballots are challenged and rejected at disproportionate rates.
Defendants named in the lawsuit include Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, state House Speaker Laurie Jinkins and state Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig — all Democrats who may not be entirely hostile to the challenge.
Billig, in a statement, echoed some of the lawsuit’s concerns. “I said at the time this map was adopted that I had serious concerns about the lack of a VRA-compliant legislative district in the Yakima Valley and that concern remains,” he said.
The lawsuit does not name any Republican officials or members of the redistricting commission, which is winding down its work. The commission consists of two voting members appointed by Democratic legislative leaders and two by Republican legislative leaders.
The lawsuit is only the latest legal challenge to the redistricting commission’s maps, which were delivered past the legal deadline in November, following a rushed and widely criticized last-minute vote on new congressional and legislative district boundaries.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government and transparency advocate Arthur West sued the commission late last year, alleging its members violated state open-meetings laws.
The dispute over the political representation of Washington’s growing Latino population was telegraphed during the redistricting commission’s negotiations last year.
Senate Democrats hired the UCLA Voting Rights Project to analyze early drafts of proposed legislative maps. That analysis found all the proposals would violate federal voting rights provisions.
Republican redistricting commissioners responded with their own legal analysis disputing that conclusion. A memo by attorneys at the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm warned the Democrats’ majority Latino district plans were an effort to weaken Republican incumbents and “strip the minority party of a meaningful opportunity to compete.”
The lawsuit filed Wednesday argues the redistricting commission was required under the Voting Rights Act to draw a legislative district in Central Washington that gives Latino voters a functional majority.
Instead, the commission drew the area’s 15th Legislative District as a “facade of a Latino opportunity district,” with a voting-age Hispanic population just barely above 50%, the lawsuit states.
That percentage was “needlessly depressed,” the lawsuit adds, because the commission excluded portions of adjacent, heavily Latino communities, including parts of Yakima, and the cities of Toppenish, Wapato and Mabton.
The lawsuit criticizes Washington’s new political maps for not accounting for a Latino population that surpassed 1 million in the state in 2020 — the 12th largest among U.S. states, according to the U.S. Census.
The lawsuit cites a court-recognized history of candidates preferred by Latino voters in the 15th District losing to those backed by white voters, and to a history of discrimination in the Yakima Valley.
In 2004, Yakima County entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department for failing to provide Spanish-language voting materials and assistance as required by the Voting Rights Act.
In 2014 a federal judge ordered the city of Yakima to change its system of City Council elections to one based on representation by geographical districts instead of electing all officials at large because Latinos were routinely unable to elect their preferred candidates.