Advocates: New political maps will stifle Latino voices in Yakima County for another decade

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. —  The Washington State Redistricting Commission is facing a federal lawsuit over claims its newly-drawn political maps dilute the voting power of the Latino population in the Yakima Valley.

Voting rights advocates claim commissioners chose to divide large Latino and Native American populations up into separate legislative districts in violation of the Voting Rights Act and in doing so, disenfranchised voting-age people of color in Central Washington.

“They don’t want to make more blue districts in Washington, so how do they do that?” said Margot Spindola with Redistricting Justice For Washington. “They create districts that don’t favor communities of color.”

Explore the final 2021 congressional and legislative district maps approved by the Washington State Redistricting Commission here.

Redistricting Justice For Washington consulted with community members to come up with a map that would revise boundaries set for the 14th and 15th legislative districts in 2011 to group together communities of color in downtown Yakima, the Lower Yakima Valley and the Yakama Nation.

Despite presenting their concerns about current district boundaries diluting the Latino vote and showing the commission how their map would enable communities of color to be able to elect a representative of their choice, advocates said commissioners failed to take their advice into consideration when they approved the final maps.

“We’re considering these maps as illegitimate and, among other things, unconstitutional,” Spindola said.

According to a report released by the UCLA Voting Rights Project, the new maps likely fail to comply with the U.S. Constitution, the Federal Voting Rights Act and Washington State law redistricting requirements.

“Although not all of the deliberations have been public, there appear serious procedural deviations in how the commission undertook its work,” the report said. “It may well be that a court would conclude that the failure to draw a Latino opportunity district around Yakima was an act of intentional discrimination.”

Explore the full report from the UCLA Voting Rights Act here.

Spindola said they were happy with the commission’s decision to include tribes in the conversation for the first time and that they agreed to the Yakama Nation’s request for its land to remain within only one legislative district.

“We had eight different tribes, federally recognized tribes, and we worked very hard to try to make sure that their input was reflected in the map,” said Jamie Nixon, the commission’s communications director.

The Washington State Redistricting Commission met virtually on Nov. 15 to approve the new legislative and congressional district maps and ended up sparking several controversies.

Watch the commission’s Nov. 15 business meeting here.

Advocates expressed their frustrations that while commissioners met for several hours, they only appeared in front of the public for about 30 minutes. Nixon said the commission is facing a lawsuit over the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

“There is an OPMA lawsuit regarding the Open Public Meetings Act, but we can’t discuss any of those legal matters as they are still pending,” Nixon said.

Controversy over Nov. 15 virtual meeting, missed constitutional deadline

For the first time in its 30-year history, the commission also failed to meet the constitutional deadline to approve new maps for legislative and congressional districts. Nixon said the commission has been short on time since they first began the redistricting process.

In previous years, the commission started the process of going through new census data at the beginning of April and the final plans weren’t due until the following January.

Nixon said the commission was aware they’d have a little less time this year, because legislators decided in 2016 to push the deadline back to Nov. 15. However, they did not anticipate the census data getting delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We didn’t get the data until about mid-August, which gave us about three months to get the work done,” Nixon said. “We’ve had less time to work with than any other commission so far.”

Nixon said when it came time for the Nov. 15 meeting, they were behind schedule and commissioners were also dealing with spotty hotel WiFi connections during the virtual meeting, which added a significant amount of time to the proceedings.

While they were able to take a vote on district boundaries seconds before the clock struck midnight, technological difficulties prevented them from actually creating the maps and sending them to the legislature until the following evening.

Read the commission chair’s statement on the results of the Nov. 15 meeting here.

Nixon said the commission worked hard to redraw district lines within a shortened time period and were happy with their outreach plan, which included an increase in communication with the public.

“We’ve received more comments than any commission ever,” Nixon said. “We easily doubled, close to tripled, the number of comments we got.”

However, Nixon said their failure to meet the deadline meant they had to cede jurisdiction over redistricting to the Washington State Supreme Court.

“We asked them to please adopt the maps or to continue to let them go through the process,” Nixon said.

Read the commission’s final report to the legislature on its 2021 redistricting efforts here.

The state Supreme Court ruled Friday that the commission voting to approve the framework ahead of the midnight deadline was enough to meet the constitutional obligation to complete redistricting by Nov. 15, despite them not producing the maps until the following day.

“This is not a situation in which the Supreme Court must step in because the commission has failed to agree on a plan it believes complies with state and federal requirements,” Chief Justice Steven González said in his order.

González argued that the purpose of the deadline was to produce a redistricting plan in a timely fashion and rejecting the commission’s work would impede that goal. However, the court did not make any statements as to whether the actual contents of the plan were acceptable under state and federal law.

“The court has not evaluated and does not render any opinion on the plan’s compliance with any statutory and constitutional requirements other than the November 15 deadline,” González said.

Read the full Supreme Court order regarding the redistricting commission here

In a previous news release by Redistricting Justice for Washington, Yakima attorney and community advocate David Morales said the local Latino community would get a district that performs for them — one way or another. 

“However, rather than submitting this plan for future lawsuits, it would be beneficial to everyone and save a lot of time and money if the ultimate plan adhered to both the Washington Voting Rights Act and the Federal Voting Rights Act,” Morales said.

Nixon said the commissioners worked hard to address issues raised by advocates and did what they could within the parameters they were allowed. He said while there are people who are unhappy with the maps, the lines had to be drawn somewhere.

“I understand where people are coming from because when you live in a democracy, you want your voice to be heard and recognized and you hope that the people who are in power take heed of what you have to say,” Nixon said.

Nixon said that’s why the commission prioritized public outreach and tried to make it as easy as possible for people to submit comments and to make sure that their voices were being heard.

Legislature to consider amendments, advocacy organization plans to sue

Nixon said the next step will be to deliver copies of the maps to all 147 legislative offices over the next couple of days. He said the legislature will have 30 days from its first session Jan. 10 to propose amendments to the map, but any changes would be minor.

“They can’t change more than 2% of the population within any one district and any amendments will require a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers,” Nixon said. “There’s never been like a big substantive change in the map. There’s never been a change to the map that changed the partisan outcome.”

Redistricting Justice for Washington representatives said they’re waiting for further information from the commission, but plan to file their lawsuit before the holidays.

View the latest news releases from Redistricting Justice for Washington here.

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