An issue over legislative districts in Central Washington reinforces the importance of seeking equitable representation for all citizens — even as it raises questions about our political divisions.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik ruled that boundaries of the 15th Legislative District violate the federal Voting Rights Act. Legislative leaders then declined to call a special session of the state commission that draws the boundaries, effectively leaving it to the courts to draw new maps.
The decision is the culmination of decades of work to boost the political representation of Latino voters in the Yakima Valley area. In one example, a federal court ruled in 2014 that elections for the Yakima City Council disenfranchised voters: “City Council elections are not ‘equally open to participation’ by members of the Latino minority.”
That is because council positions had been elected citywide, rather than by district. The city responded by enacting district voting; that has cleared the way for the first Hispanic council members in the history of Yakima, where Latinos make up 45 percent of the population.
Similar issues are at play in the legislative districts. New maps following the 2020 U.S. Census created a district where Hispanics amount to just over 50 percent of the voting population. Lasnik ruled that wasn’t enough to “provide equal electoral opportunity where past discrimination, current social/economic conditions, and a sense of hopelessness keep Latino voters from the polls in numbers significantly greater than white voters.”
Matt Barreto, a UCLA professor who testified in the case, called the decision “a historic turning point for Washington state politics. For the first time ever, there will be a majority Latino district in which the Latino voters will get to choose their candidate to send to Olympia. That has never happened.”
The drawing of political maps has attracted national attention in recent years. In most states, the legislature is tasked with creating legislative and congressional boundaries, a system that allows for aggressive gerrymandering by the party in power.
Last year alone, judges in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Ohio ruled that maps drawn by Republicans were unconstitutional. This year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Alabama districts disenfranchised Black voters, and the Legislature thus far has defied court orders to redraw the boundaries.
Washington’s system is preferable — if imperfect. Legislative leaders of both political parties nominate members to a bipartisan redistricting committee.
That undoubtedly is a difficult task, with districts required to have similar population levels. People are not equitably distributed across the landscape, and major boundaries such as rivers and highways do not neatly divide the populace into equal numbers. Residents sometimes end up in different legislative districts than their neighbors across the street.
Adding racial considerations can complicate that process. So can assumptions that voters of any race or demographic form a monolithic voting bloc. Indeed, the politics of race have helped create divisions that are threatening our democracy.
But such considerations are necessary. As Simone Leeper of the Campaign Legal Center told The Seattle Times: “It’s not about giving minority voters any sort of leg up or advantage over other voters. It’s just about making sure that minority voters have the same opportunity that all of the other voters have to have their voice heard.”
And that should be the paramount duty of our election system.