A group of Latino voters from the Yakima Valley has sued the state of Washington, alleging violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and an intentional dilution of Hispanic voters’ influence in new political maps.
The lawsuit — filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court by the civil rights organizations Campaign Legal Center, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and others — targets the new legislative District 15 in Central Washington, which is majority Latino. The district is part of the statewide redistricting plan approved by the bipartisan Washington State Redistricting Commission.
District 15, which includes parts of Yakima, Grant, Benton, Franklin and Adams counties in the plan, has a Latino voter population of 50.02% and an overall minority voter population of 55.05%, according to population breakdowns provided by the commission.
The lawsuit names Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig as defendants.
“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,” Billig said in an email statement provided to the Yakima Herald-Republic.
Hobbs and Jinkins did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit said the District 15 voting area in the Yakima Valley is a “facade” of a majority-minority district and violates the Voting Rights Act because it won’t allow Latinos the chance to elect candidates of their choice. The lawsuit seeks to keep the state from conducting elections in the new District 15 and the creation of a new, majority Latino district in the Yakima Valley.
The panel’s map excluded nearby, heavily Latino communities in the Yakima Valley, according to the lawsuit. Part of the city of Yakima and the cities of Toppenish, Wapato and Mabton were separated from the Latino majority district. The district was then extended to Adams County to include Latino voters in Othello, who are less politically active than those in the excluded communities in the Yakima Valley, the lawsuit said.
The extension also added rural white communities in Benton, Grant and Franklin counties. These white voters are more politically active than Latino voters, the lawsuit said, and often vote against candidates preferred by Latinos.
The district was also assigned an odd number, meaning its elections will be held in non-presidential election years. The lawsuit said Latino voters turn out at greater numbers in presidential election years. Assigning the district an odd number ensured even lower Latino voter turnout in the district, it said.
With a slim Hispanic citizens of voting age majority, District 15 in the commission’s plan leans Republican and has a Native American population of 2.18%.
The Yakama Reservation is separated from the Latino voter majority district and is in District 14. Commissioners tried not to split up the reservation as has been done in the past at the request of the Yakama Nation. Yakima attorney and resident David Morales previously told the Yakima Herald-Republic that Native American voters overwhelmingly vote for Latino candidates of choice.
District 14 includes parts of Yakima and Klickitat counties, including the cities of Wapato, Toppenish, White Swan and Goldendale. It has a minority voter population of 31.95%, with Latino voters making up 22.55% and Native American voters making up 6.44% of the total.
History of discrimination
Latinos make up 50.7% of the population in Yakima County, according to data from the 2020 Census. The number of people identifying as Latino increased 18.8% in the past 10 years, the data showed. The communities that saw the largest increases in their Latino populations were Yakima, Terrace Heights, Union Gap and Selah.
The city of Yakima and Yakima County have both faced voting rights lawsuits in the past decade alleging the election systems disenfranchised Latino voters, and made changes as a result.
“There’s a very long history of voting rights discrimination in the Yakima Valley region,” said Sonni Waknin of the UCLA Voting Rights Project, one of the plaintiffs. “In Yakima Valley, Latinos have driven the region’s population growth and it is imperative that Washington State does not dilute the ability of Latino voters to meaningfully exercise the right to choose candidates that represent their community’s needs.”
The new political maps drawn up by the state panel of two Democrats and two Republicans have drawn multiple lawsuits.
Earlier this month the Washington Supreme Court declined to hear two legal challenges. The separate lawsuits were filed by the Washington Coalition for Open Government and Arthur West of Olympia. They said the legislative and congressional maps must be invalidated because commissioners violated open meeting laws, negotiated secretly for hours before the Nov. 15 deadline and hurriedly voted on new boundaries that were not publicly displayed or debated.
Last month the state Supreme Court had said the plan adopted by the Washington Redistricting Commission “substantially complied” with statutory deadlines, and declined to adopt a new redistricting plan for the state.
If Washington lawmakers want to make any changes, they must do so within the first 30 days of the legislative session, which began Jan. 10. Any change must be approved by a two-thirds vote in each chamber.
The redrawn maps for the 10 U.S. House districts and 49 state legislative districts will be in place for the next decade, starting with the midterm elections.
This article includes reporting by The Associated Press.