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News / Northwest

Redistricting map meant to fix ‘systematic racism’ ousts 1st Latina senator in Central WA

By Eric Rosane, Tri-City Herald
Published: March 18, 2024, 7:49am

KENNEWICK — An order issued Friday by a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle will unseat one of the most productive freshman lawmakers in the Washington Legislature.

State Sen. Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, says a new map detailing the boundaries of Washington’s legislative districts has effectively drawn her out of the 15th Legislative District.

She was elected in 2022 after the retirement of Jim Honeyford, a Republican from Sunnyside, to represent a redrawn district that included downtown Pasco, parts of the Yakima Valley and some of downtown Yakima.

“This map moves me out of my district,” Torres, a Latina, said in a statement provided by Washington Senate Republicans. “I can stay the next two years, but then I will be cut from helping the constituents who I grew up with and who I love to serve.”

“This map is a mockery of the Voting Rights Act,” she added.

Torres was drawn into the 16th Legislative District. It’s unclear if she plans to mount a challenge for the seat of another Tri-City area lawmaker. The Tri-City Herald could not reach her by phone on Friday night.

The new map is the result of a lawsuit filed on behalf of the UCLA Voting Rights Project against Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, alleging that 2021 redistricting efforts diluted Latino electoral influence in the Yakima Valley.

Every 10 years, after the conclusion of the decennial U.S. Census, states are required to redraw their voting maps for congressional and legislative seats to account for population changes.

In January, 2022, after Torres was elected to her seat, a group of five voters sued the state over what they said was a “facade of a Latino opportunity district.”

The 2021 Washington State Redistricting Commission, the voters alleged, had “cracked” apart the Yakima Valley’s Latino communities when drawing the new 15th District and had excluded heavier Latino communities in exchange for whiter ones.

Hispanics made up just barely half of the district’s citizen voting age after the 2021 redraw.

“The commission’s decision to create the facade of a Latino opportunity district that they knew would not perform to elect Latino-preferred candidates has the intent and effect of diluting the voting power of Latino voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act,” read the plaintiffs’ complaint for injunctive relief.

Judge Robert Lasnik of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle, ruled in August 2023 that the redrawn district did impair the ability of Latino voters to elect candidates of their choice.

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The state Redistricting Commission was given an opportunity to revise and adopt a new map, but declined, much to the chagrin of Republicans who voiced support for calling the commission back to work.

Lasnik was the one ultimately left with the decision to approve a remedial map after both parties in the lawsuit failed to come to a consensus. The process included reviewing dozens of proposed maps and consulting redistricting experts.

“The court also reached out to the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, soliciting their written input and participation at the March 8 evidentiary hearing,” read court records.

The result is an adopted map that corrects violations to the Voting Rights Act, keeps Latino communities along the Yakima River Valley unified in the 15th District, keeps a majority of Yakama Nation lands together and has negligible impact to population distributions, Lasnik writes.

The new map impacts — in some ways major, and others minor — the boundaries of 13 District.

First Central WA Latina senator

Opponents to the challenge on Washington’s Voting Rights Act have pointed to Torres herself as proof that Hispanics in Central Washington can elect their own.

Torres is a first-generation American whose family came from Mexico without documentation and she is the first Latina senator to serve the region, according to the Seattle Times.

She’s also one of the most productive freshman lawmakers in the Legislature, having primary sponsored about 38 bills over the first two years she’s served in office.

During the 2024 legislative session, which concluded last week, Torres got bills passed to expand training opportunities for public defenders and train temporary school employees on safety policies.

Torres argues Lasnik misused the Voting Rights Act to “allow a partisan gerrymander” of the state’s legislative districts.

The order makes Washington’s 14th Legislative District — which encompasses the whole Yakama Nation and parts of the city of Yakima — “substantially more Democratic” when compared to the 15th.

“This map disenfranchises Hispanics — all to help the Democratic Party gain seats towards a super majority in the Legislature,” she said. “I presume Judge Lasnik made this decision under the guise that a ‘preferred Latino candidate’ was a Democrat and the VRA mandated that the majority-minority district become more Democratic.”

She adds that the decision “discriminates” and “stereotypes” Hispanics, a population that is much more politically diverse and willing to back Republicans than progressives believe.

“For a group of people who claim to want to know about the lived experience of their neighbors, they seem to want to ignore ours in their thirst for political power,” she said.

‘A great day for democracy’

Washington Democratic Party Chair Shasti Conrad said it was a “great day for democracy” as Washington gained a new majority-minority district.

Their party will be “working overtime” to flip the all-Republican delegation of the redrawn 14th Legislative District later this year.

“We greatly appreciate that Washington’s judiciary recognized the need to rectify systemic racism in the central region of our state,” she said in a statement. “This is a sensible map which upholds our state’s Constitutional requirements and empowers voters in Central Washington.”

The Washington Republican Party said in a statement that it was “disturbed” by the judge’s order, which they characterized as a “heavy-handed, partisan usurpation of the Washington Redistrict Commission’s lawful and orderly work.”

“Lasnik’s opinion is a mistake. It needs to be stayed and appealed. A less-partisan appeals court will likely demand a more reasonable solution to the state’s redistricting questions,” the party said.