Unopened ballots await processing during the 2020 election. (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
There’s broad consensus the boundaries drawn for a legislative district in the Yakima Valley region are wrong – even the state says they violate federal law.
Now a judge is deciding the next step: if the map for the 15th Legislative District is to be redrawn, how it will be done and by whom in time for the 2024 elections.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik began deliberating after the filing of closing arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit where residents in the district are challenging its borders, arguing that they undermine the ability of Latino voters there to participate equally in elections.
While the state concedes there is reason for the boundaries to be reworked, the two sides differ on how that process should unfold. Meanwhile, in a twist, another group of voters, including a Republican state lawmaker, has intervened in the case and also wants to see the district redrawn, but for different reasons than the ones raised by the original challengers.
The 15th district encompasses parts of five counties in south-central Washington – Yakima, Adams, Benton, Franklin and Grant.
The boundaries of the 15th Legislative District.
Setting the boundaries was one of the bipartisan Redistricting Commission’s toughest and most contentious agreements to reach before it adjourned on Nov. 16, 2021. They 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, a coalition representing Latino voters sued, contending the final map violated the federal Voting Rights Act because it dilutes the electoral power of those voters. The slow-moving case included a trial last month featuring testimony from commissioners and voting experts.
From the outset, the 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 as “the white voting majority in the Yakima Valley region votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it…to defeat” Latino-preferred candidates, plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in their final brief.
“The 15th legislative district as it is currently drawn cannot provide Latinos with an equal opportunity to elect their candidate of choice,” Simone Leeper, an attorney with Campaign Legal Center, said in an interview. “There needs to be a new map.”
State attorneys, relying on their own experts, came to the same conclusion, writing in their final brief that the state “cannot and does not dispute” plaintiffs’ contention.
But, they stressed, it wasn’t on purpose.
Commissioners “did not intentionally discriminate against Latino voters” as they sought to promote competitive elections that would “give Hispanic voters a chance to elect their preferred candidates,” they wrote.
While plaintiffs and the state agree on the need for a new map, they differ on the process.
Plaintiffs suggest the court give the state’s “political apparatus” 30 days to submit a proposed new map. The plaintiffs would then get time to respond and offer their own version.
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Hughes, writing for the state, said the Redistricting Commission should be reconvened, given 60 days to draw a new map and send it to lawmakers to sign off on early in the 2024 session.
Secretary of State Steve Hobbs has said any new map needs to be received by his office in early March so counties have time to make changes for the 2024 election cycle.
If these were the only two parties, the path forward would be clear. But they’re not.
Three registered voters, including state Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, were allowed to enter the case as intervenors. And they are arguing for a new map as well.
They contend commissioners got the map wrong because they focused too much on race – they term it “racial gerrymandering” – in setting the boundaries. It should be redrawn with a focus on compactness and communities of interest, not race, they say.
The district has a majority Hispanic voting age population “so Hispanic voters have the opportunity to choose whatever candidate they preferred if they voted as a bloc,” reads the brief authored by attorney Drew Stokesbary, who is also a state representative and current House Minority Leader.
While plaintiffs may consider the district’s majority-minority makeup a “facade,” witnesses at the trial presented no evidence that Hispanics lack equal access to the polls or an inability to elect Latinos, Stokesbary wrote. For example, he noted, Nikki Torres of Pasco, a Latina and Republican, was elected to the state Senate in 2022 by an overwhelming margin within the district’s new boundaries. The district’s two current House members, Reps. Bruce Chandler and Bryan Sandlin, are also Republicans.
The intervenors argue a goal of the plaintiffs is to make the Republican-leaning legislative district into one more favorable to Democratic candidates.
If Lasnik orders a new map, they ask him to make sure it maintains the same overall statewide partisan balance as the 2021 legislative map “but does not sort voters on the basis of race or ethnicity.” The task, they say in their brief, should go through the Redistricting Commission and Legislature by Nov. 15 of this year.
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