Lawsuit claims state political maps illegally ‘cracked’ Yakima Valley to dilute Latino votes

Latino voters in the Yakima Valley are suing the state over claims that officials intentionally drew boundaries to dilute their votes and make it harder for them to elect representatives.

The federal lawsuit challenges the legality of the proposed legislative map drawn by the Washington State Redistricting Commission, arguing that commissioners “cracked” Latino voters into legislative districts with a majority of white voters.

“The commissioners went out of their way … to create a map that on the surface looks like it might be a good map for Latinos but in reality, does not give Latino candidates of choice an opportunity to win and does not give the Latino community a voice and a vote,” said David Morales with the Southcentral Coalition For People of Color For Redistricting.

Lawyers from the UCLA Voting Rights Project, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Campaign Legal Center filed the lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington on behalf of eight local Latino voters and the Southcentral Coalition For People of Color For Redistricting.

To be in compliance with the Voting Rights Act, the commission needed to create a majority-Latino state legislative district to keep up with the expansive Latino population growth in the Yakima Valley and allow them equal opportunities to vote in someone they feel best represents their interests as a community.

Commissioners did ensure that the Hispanic voting age population in the 15th Legislative District was 50.02%, but the lawsuit claims they did so in a way that ensured Latino voters would not be able to have a majority vote.

“This number is needlessly depressed because the Commission excluded a number of adjacent, heavily Latino communities in Yakima County—including parts of the City of Yakima and the cities of Toppenish, Wapato, Mabton, and their surrounding areas—and instead included an expanse of rural, white communities in Benton, Grant, and Franklin Counties,” the lawsuit said.

“If the commission really intended to give Latinos an opportunity to elect — which we believe they did not — they would have kept those communities together,” said Ernest Herrera with Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. 

Herrera said commissioners also pulled in Latino communities in the Othello area in Adams County, which have fewer registered voters and less political participation than surrounding areas.

“They purposefully chose those Latinos that are not as politically active and organized,” Herrera said. “And they excluded many of the organized politically active Latinos in the Lower Yakima Valley.”

According to the lawsuit, commissioners were presented with maps made by voting rights advocates with community input that would have included most of the Latino population in areas of the City of Yakima and the cities of Toppenish, Wapato and Mabton.

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs argue that despite knowing about the community’s concerns and having VRA-compliant maps available for reference, the commissioners intententionally disregarded those maps in favor of ones that will make it harder for Latino voters to elect candidates of choice.

“We have statistical analysis that shows that the district that was drawn will not perform for the Latino community,” said Simone Leeper with Campaign Legal. “So this isn’t just conjecture. This is something that we actually can prove.”

Leeper said that could have long-lasting effects on the Latino community, adding that if they are unable to elect their chosen candidate, their needs will likely go unrepresented in the legislature.

“There are health disparities, economic disparities, social welfare disparities between the Latino community and the white community in this area and across the state. And it’s particularly seen in the Yakima Valley area,where you have members of the community who are not getting their fair share of education opportunities. They’re not having the economic opportunities that other people are having, so this really touches on every part of an individual in the community’s life,” Leeper said.

The lawsuit names several state officials as defendants, including:

  • Steve Hobbs, Washington Secretary of State, is being sued in his official capacity because his office oversees elections once adopted redistricting plans take effect.
  • Laurie Jinkins, the Speaker of the Washington State House of Representatives, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit because she has the power to call for a vote to reconvene the commission and modify redistricting plans.
  • Andy Billig, Majority Leader of the Washington State Senate, is also named as a defendant due to his power to call for a vote reconvening the commission.

The plaintiff is asking the court to rule that the maps are in violation of the Voting Rights Act, prevent the state from using them and require new maps be agreed upon that are in compliance with federal law.

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