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Judge keeps Washington state legislative maps in place for 2022 election cycle

Lawyers for Latino voters in Yakima Valley said the evidence of Voting Rights Act violations could still result in the maps’ ouster at trial in 2023.

(CN) — A federal judge in Washington state on Wednesday declined to toss out the redistricted maps for the Washington Legislature ahead of the 2022 election cycle.

Latino voters from Yakima Valley urged the court to block use of the maps at a hearing Tuesday, arguing they are likely to succeed on their claims that the maps diluted their voting power in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik, a Bill Clinton appointee in the Western District of Washington, denied a preliminary injunction on the maps in a ruling Wednesday, citing the Purcell principle, which precludes lower courts from altering “election rules on the eve of an election.”

“Redistricting moves voters — and potentially candidates — from one district to another and alters everything from precinct boundaries to voter records to ballot layouts,” Lasnik wrote.

Lasnik highlighted the challenges faced by county officials in adjusting precinct boundaries if the maps were scrapped. The process generally takes up to five weeks and elections officials are already facing a May 2 deadline. Further, the deadlines on the candidate filing period and printing of ballots to be mailed to overseas voters proved to be insurmountable hurdles ahead of the Evergreen State's August primary elections.

“Any delay in the establishment of precinct boundaries will likely lead to confusion for both candidates and voters in the affected area,” Lasnik wrote, adding the preliminary injunction would likely have been appealed, causing additional delay and confusion.

The U.S. Supreme Court used the Purcell principle to keep GOP-friendly maps in Alabama in place for the 2022 election despite evidence of racial gerrymandering.

Attorney Mark Gaber from the Campaign Legal Center argued during a hearing Tuesday that Washington counties had sufficient time to adjust precinct boundaries without delaying the primary. Gaber cited the high court’s shadow docket ruling granting Republican lawmakers’ request to discard Wisconsin’s electoral maps.

Lasnik differentiated Washington from Wisconsin, finding that Wisconsin’s officials had four more weeks than Washington’s would have to complete the necessary tasks ahead of voting.

Lawyers for Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, the defendant in the case, indicated that the latest date the counties could receive a revised map and still make their precinct-drawing deadlines was March 28, the first business day that the motion for a preliminary injunction was under consideration. Lasnik said the Latino voters’ remedial map was not submitted until even later, making the immediate issuance of the injunction “an impossibility.”

Gaber said that while his clients believed “a new district could be put in place without causing the kind of disruption that would be concerning,” he was not surprised by the denial given Lasnik was bound by the Supreme Court’s Purcell rule precedent.

“The signals from the Supreme Court have really made it very difficult to get any sort of change in the year after districts are drawn, which is really unfortunate because it basically says that there’s a free pass to have discriminatory maps for at least one election cycle,” Gaber said in an interview.

Pointing to the differing rulings in Wisconsin and Alabama, Gaber said the Supreme Court has inconsistently applied the law and undermined its past role as the “most important guardrail in favor of civil rights.”

While Washington state’s legislative maps are poised to remain intact for the 2022 election, Gaber said they are still optimistic about the outcome of the case’s bench trial scheduled for January 2023.

He noted that Lasnik indicated during Tuesday’s hearing that there was persuasive evidence of Voting Rights Act violations. Gaber said the discovery process ahead of the trial will likely yield more evidence that the commission tasked with redistricting chose not to draw a Yakima area district where Latino voters could elect their preferred candidate even though the commission “knew they had an obligation under federal law” to do so.

“Yakima Valley has not had good representation,” Gaber said, referencing issues raised in the complaint about racially insensitive remarks by the area’s current legislator. Gaber said this results in a lack of responsiveness to the constituents and lower voter participation.

“Though we didn’t prevail in getting a preliminary injunction because of timing issues, I think that the evidence of the Voting Rights Act violation is very clear in this case,” Gaber said. “We’re pretty optimistic that we’ll be able to prevail and, at least for the next election cycle, ensure that Latino voters in the Yakima area don’t have their votes diluted.”

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