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News / Northwest

Latino voter discrimination claim in Franklin County lands at WA state Supreme Court

By Cameron Probert, Tri-City Herald
Published: May 19, 2023, 8:19am

An agreement expected to help Latino voters have more say in choosing a Franklin County commissioner is at risk of being overturned.

It’s been nearly a year since Franklin County reached a settlement with three local members of the League of United Latin American Citizens that changed how commissioner elections will be held starting in 2024.

Last week, a challenge to the agreement by James Gimenez, a Franklin County Republican precinct committee officer, reached the Washington State Supreme Court.

His attorney, Joel Ard, argued Thursday that the Washington Voting Rights Act was improperly applied and unconstitutional.

He told the justices that the lawsuit challenging the current way for choosing commissioners, as well as the settlement to change it, should be dismissed.

UCLA Voting Rights Project Attorney Chad Dunn responded that Franklin County’s at-large voting system was clearly discriminatory and the state Legislature was within its authority in spelling out a solution.

It’s the latest twist in a case that has stretched through two years of litigation, was resolved twice and led to the county firing of one of its three attorneys.

It started with three Franklin County voters who are members of the League of United Latin American Citizens challenging both the structure of the commissioner districts and how they are elected.

Their attorneys argued that the commissioner districts split up the largely Latino section of east Pasco, effectively watering down their candidate choice in the primary.

But even if a candidate managed to advance, the at-large elections in the general election could mean that the predominately white voting populace could overrule their choice, according to court documents.

The county agreed to settle the lawsuit in May 2022. The agreement said the 2024 election would become district-based and the county would pay $375,000 to end the suit.

In exchange, the county would get to keep the district boundaries that the commissioners had signed off on earlier in the year. The boundaries had to be redrawn to adjust for population changes seen in the census results to ensure each district had about the same number of voters.

Unconstitutional claim

On Thursday, Ard made four arguments, including that the 2018 state law violated the 14th Amendment and the state constitution.

He maintained that Lations can’t be considered a minority group in Franklin County because they account for a majority of the people living in the county.

He also noted that the state law allowing the commissioners to redraw their voting boundaries says they couldn’t be drawn based on race and that the Washington Voting Rights Act violates that requirement.

And he argued that the Washington Voting Rights Act purposely avoided the “guard rails” put in place by U.S. Supreme Court decisions to avoid constitutional problems. He said these rules have been frequently argued and are hotly contested.

He said the Legislature wrote an unconstitutional law in a way so that it would be challenged in court.

“Supreme Court case after Supreme Court case is written out of the WVRA so that the statute imposes court-created, race-based districting. … What didn’t happen is the test case,” he said.

“Municipalities, counties, these political sub-jurisdictions have elected officials who are happy to settle the case because they get to draw their own district lines, and there is nothing more appealing to an elected official than drawing a line that makes a safer seat,” he said.

In particular, he said the law doesn’t require “compactness,” meaning the members of the minority group are required to live in a location that can be incorporated into a single contiguous district.

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It also doesn’t require proof of past discrimination, either, Ard argued.

The UCLA Voting Rights Project attorneys have presented proof of both in previous court documents.

Vigorously defended cases

Dunn, who has argued voting rights cases in Texas, called the Franklin County case one of the “the most vigorously defended” in his time as an attorney.

Ard’s challenge is based on theories that have been rejected by every court that has considered them, Dunn said.

“It’s a complaint that because the Washington Voting Rights Act considers race to determine whether or not there are unequal electoral conditions in the community, then that alone violates the 14th Amendment,” he said.

He pointed out while the majority of the population may be Latino, they are still a minority of the voting population.

The state Legislature considerable evidence from Yakima and the Tri-Cities and found that protections were needed for the right to vote, he said.

“It responded with the Washington Voting Rights Act,” he said. “At this moment, Latino citizens and Latina citizens are on the verge of having the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice for the first time. That is because of the Washington Voting Rights Act.”

The state Supreme Court has previously held that the Legislature should be given preference when coming up with rules around drawing voting districts.

He said the state law used the federal voting rights law as its foundation and was built based on a a similar California law that has already been challenged and upheld.

He argued that the requirement for people to live in a single area is not written out of the statute, but is one of the factors judges can look at when drawing voting boundaries.

The state Supreme Court will issue its decision at a later date.

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