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News / Northwest

Washington lawmakers won’t call a special session on Yakima Valley district map

By Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times
Published: September 13, 2023, 6:12pm

OLYMPIA — Legislative leaders said Wednesday they want a court to decide how to redraw a district in Central Washington that violates federal law prohibiting discriminatory voting practices.

Lawmakers could have called a special session to reconvene a state commission — that typically draws legislative boundaries — to redraw the map of the 15th Legislative District, which spans the Yakima Valley and Pasco areas.

But Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said Wednesday they would not do so.

They said leaving the decision up to the court was “the most expedient and non-political way to move forward,” and said “voters in the Yakima Valley are entitled to fair and timely legislative maps.”

In mid-August, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik found that the current district violates the federal Voting Rights Act and ordered the state to redraw the map to comply with the 1965 law. Intervenors in the case, Soto Palmer v. Hobbs, have filed an appeal.

The people who brought the lawsuit had argued the state split or “cracked” the Yakima Valley’s substantial Latino population, diluting their voting power.

Another lawsuit, Garcia v. Hobbs, had argued the district was an illegal racial gerrymander, but that case was tossed out last week as moot because the map was found to be invalid and will be redrawn under Soto Palmer.

Lawmakers’ decision Wednesday means the court will decide how the new boundaries will be drawn, though momentum appeared to coalesce around that approach in recent days.

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Earlier this week, Gov. Jay Inslee said he wouldn’t call a special session, and the Latino Democratic Caucus, comprised of Latino Democrats from both chambers of the Legislature, said they wouldn’t support a special session either.

“The bipartisan Redistricting Commission failed to draw a legislative map that complied with the federal (Voting Rights Act),” the caucus said in a statement. “We support voters seeking justice in a forum where it has already been achieved, devoid of partisanship and gamesmanship.”

But Senate Republican Leader John Braun had pushed for the commission earlier this week, saying that “if majority leadership prevents the Legislature from reconvening the Redistricting Commission, it will be another effort on their part to abdicate our duty and authority to another branch of government for political gains.”

The redrawn maps could shift political representation in the 15th District toward candidates favored by Latino voters.

In a statement, the Southcentral Coalition of People of Color for Redistricting said that they “anticipate the creation of a new 15th legislative district that truly serves the needs of the region’s residents.”

The current district contains a Latino voting age population of 51.5%, a slim majority that “fails to afford them equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidates,” Lasnik said.

The new district, to comply with the Voting Rights Act, is expected to contain a higher share of Latino voters. Latinos in the area tend to vote “cohesively,” that is, roughly 70% tend to choose the same candidate, Lasnik said.

However, Lasnik noted in his opinion the experts in the case agreed that in most elections studied, Latino voters “overwhelmingly” favored the same candidate. But they disagreed on Latino voter cohesion in one race in particular — the 2022 election of Sen. Nikki Torres, a Latina Republican, with one expert saying that 60 to 68% of Latinos favored her opponent, a white Democrat, with another expert saying the split was 52-48.

Torres is one of the three lawmakers, all Republicans, who currently represent the district in the Legislature. The others are Rep. Bryan Sandlin, R-Zillah, and Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger.

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