Commissioner approved Legislative district map

The approved Washington legislative district map based on 2020 Census data.

Washington’s new redistricting plan will stand for the 2022 election cycle, despite two lawsuits filed over the new political boundaries in Central Washington.

U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik signed an order for one of the lawsuits Thursday, denying a request to block the maps from being used in the current election cycle.

The lawsuit, filed by a group of Latino voters and civil rights organizations, alleges violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and an intentional dilution of Latino voters’ influence in the Yakima Valley.

The judge’s order dismisses House Speaker Laurie Jinkins and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig as defendants. Secretary of State Steve Hobbs was also named as a defendant, though he has taken no position on the case. 

Charlie Boisner, communications director for the Office of the Secretary of State, provided a statement regarding Thursday's order: “We acknowledge and respect yesterday’s court decision. However, it wouldn’t be appropriate to provide further comment regarding ongoing litigation. The decision made by the court is just the first of many to come regarding this case.”

The voting area of interest is state legislative District 15, which splits Yakima and Pasco, covers parts of five counties, leans Republican and has a Latino voter majority of 50.02% and an overall minority voter population of 55.05%, according to population breakdowns provided by the Washington State Redistricting Commission, the bipartisan panel that created the plan.

The new District 15 includes parts of Yakima, Grant, Benton, Franklin and Adams counties. The redistricting commission tried not to split up the Yakama Reservation, which falls in District 14, as has been done in the past.

Request to block maps

The groups in the case filed a request for early and expedited relief in January, asking the court to prohibit the use of the redistricting plan in 2022, order the adoption of a map that complies with the Voting Rights Act, and extend the candidate filing deadline for affected districts if necessary, according to the document.

They argued that not doing so would cause “irreparable harm” to Yakima Valley voters, who are set to elect candidates in state House and Senate elections in 2022, according to the document.

“Plaintiffs will be denied the ability to elect candidates of choice to LD 15,” the request said.

Hobbs’ response said state and county elections officials were rapidly approaching a point of no return for legislative districts for the 2022 elections.

Unless plaintiffs could establish an entitlement to relief and identify a statewide legislative map for the court to order in a timely fashion — by March 28 — it would not be feasible to prohibit the use of the plan for the current election cycle, the response said.

Court order

In the order issued Thursday, Lasnik said that it is too close to the 2022 election to prohibit the use of the plan for this election cycle, citing timelines for finalizing voting precincts, candidate filing periods and the creation of voters’ pamphlets before ballots must be mailed.

The deadline to revise voting precincts is May 2, the order said. It takes about five weeks to establish precinct boundaries, the order said, making March 28 the practical deadline for any changes ahead of the 2022 election cycle. Lasnik said the timeline would not have allowed an order to be issued on March 28.

Lasnik also disagreed with the plaintiffs’ recommendation to delay the establishment of precinct boundaries, saying it would “likely lead to confusion for both candidates and voters in the affected area.”

He disagreed with delaying the candidate filing period, which is May 16-20. That delay could affect voters’ pamphlets and deadlines to mail overseas ballots before the Aug. 2 primary, the order said.

Reactions

Campaign Legal Center, one of the plaintiffs, said in a news release it will move forward with a trial in this lawsuit and continue to advocate for Latino voters in Washington.

“Latino voters in the Yakima Valley and Pasco regions deserve to have a fair opportunity to make their voices heard and elect candidates who will listen to them and meet their needs,” said a statement from Paul Smith, senior vice president of Campaign Legal Center. “The fight is far from over and we will continue to advocate for Latino voters in Washington so they can have a say in important matters that impact them every day.”

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in an interview the decision was a disappointment.

“It’s always a disappointment when you have to have an election under a map that may be illegitimate,” Saenz said. “The problem may be that you create an incumbent who shouldn’t be an incumbent because they shouldn’t have been elected from the district.”

Another issue, Saenz said, is the possibility that action could be taken in future years by an elected official in a district that shouldn’t exist.

He said a key problem during this redistricting cycle was the delay in 2020 Census data.

“It is really those four months of delay that result — not just here, but in a number of other cases across the country — in the denial of relief for the 2022 election,” Saenz said.

Saenz said he didn’t have any objections about the judge dismissing Jinkins and Billig.

“We simply want to make sure that the right defendant or defendants are there to secure relief,” Saenz said.

A trial for the voting rights lawsuit is scheduled for Jan. 9, 2023.

Saenz said any changes made as the result of the trial would only affect future elections.

Other updates

Another group of Hispanic voters — Jose Trevino of Granger, Ismael Campos of Kennewick and State Rep. Alex Ybarra of Quincy — has filed a motion to intervene in the case. The voters are represented by Andrew Stokesbary, a Republican who represents Auburn in the state House.

A second lawsuit, which alleges the boundaries of a Yakima Valley voting district constitute illegal racial gerrymandering, is pending in U.S. District Court with no hearing date scheduled as of Thursday. The lawsuit was filed by Benancio Garcia of Sunnyside, a U.S. congressional candidate running as a Republican in Washington’s 4th District. He is represented by Stokesbary, who could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Benancio Garcia's name. 

Contact Kate Smith at katesmith@yakimaherald.com.

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