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Federal judge urged to scrap redistricting maps for Washington state Legislature

The judge seemed persuaded by claims the maps dilute the voting power of Latinos in Yakima Valley but questioned if the proximity to the election dictated the maps be kept in place.

(CN) — Attorneys for Latino residents of Yakima Valley in Washington state asked a federal judge to block the redistricted maps for the Legislature from going into effect.

The hearing Tuesday in the Western District of Washington focused both on the claims that the maps dilute the power of Latinos in Yakima Valley to elect their chosen candidates, as well as the timing of the election. The court must determine whether those factors favor tossing out the new maps until the case is decided on its merits at a trial scheduled for early 2023.

Latino voters from the area sued Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs and the majority leaders in the Legislature, arguing that the new district lines fragmented the Latino community and created “a façade of a Latino opportunity district” in violation of the Voting Rights Act. According to the complaint, Washington’s Latino population exceeded 1 million people in 2020, with a growth rate of over 40% for Latinos compared to a growth rate of just above 11% for non-Latinos.

Attorney Mark Gaber, who has worked on redistricting cases across the country, argued during the hearing that the Latino community in Yakima Valley is likely to succeed on its claims.

Gaber said the plaintiffs have met the U.S. Supreme Court’s criteria to prove racial vote dilution under the Voting Rights Act, noting that the Latino community is large and compact enough in Yakima Valley to constitute a majority in a legislative district, is “politically cohesive” and votes as a group to defeat the minority group’s preferred candidate.

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik, a Bill Clinton appointee, indicated that the merits of the Latino voters’ case were persuasive but questioned whether it would be appropriate to block use of the maps at this stage of the process. Lasnik pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to keep in place Alabama’s congressional map despite evidence of racial gerrymandering, citing the proximity to the election.

Leslie Griffith of the Washington Attorney General’s office made that argument. Though she said the state accepts that the Latino voters’ Voting Rights Act claims may succeed at the 2023 trial, Griffith said throwing the maps out now would interfere in the impending 2022 election cycle.

“The secretary of state is committed to doing what is possible and necessary,” Griffith said. “But the election is not a day, it’s a process, and that is a process that is underway.”

Griffith noted Washington’s primary elections are in August and that ballots must be printed in less than two months. Gaber countered that the plaintiffs are not seeking a delay to the candidate filing period or the primary election.

According to Griffith, one of the state’s primary concerns should use of the maps be blocked is the undue burden placed on counties, which face May 2 deadline to finalize their precincts. She said smaller counties especially have limited resources and to comply with state and federal law must hold lengthy public hearings to readjust their precinct boundaries.

Gaber assured Lasnik that the alternative maps proposed by the Latino voters could be modified to minimize the burden on counties facing a time crunch in solidifying their precinct plans.

“We are happy to work to make a remedy as seamless as possible for the state,” Gaber said.

Some of the precinct adjustments proposed by the Latino voters would match the district boundaries to those of the Yakama Indian Reservation. Gaber said that while they believe it makes most sense for the reservation to be intact, they did not want that proposal to stand in the way of the injunction.

Also pending in the case is a motion to intervene, filed by other Latino voters in Yakima Valley — including Republican state Representative Alex Ybarra — who disagree that the new legislative maps violate the Voting Rights Act. 

Lasnik allowed attorney and Republican state Representative Andrew Stokesbary to briefly argue why they believe the case is unlikely to succeed on its merits, previewing the arguments that could be made at the 2023 trial if their motion to intervene is granted. Stokesbary argued the plaintiff Latino voters’ argument was based more on the partisan composition of the maps rather than the racial voting power.

Lasnik said he expects to issue a ruling on the preliminary injunction on Wednesday.

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