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U.S. Supreme Court won’t block Washington’s new legislative district map


U.S. Supreme Court won’t block Washington’s new legislative district map

Apr 02, 2024 | 8:23 pm ET
By Jerry Cornfield
U.S. Supreme Court won’t block Washington’s new legislative district map
The U.S. Supreme Court. (Al Drago/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday steered clear of Washington state’s redistricting battle.

Without comment, the high court refused to block use of new legislative district boundaries intended to give Latino voters in the Yakima Valley a better chance of electing the candidate of their choosing.

Tuesday’s decision clears the way for use of the controversial redrawing of the 15th Legislative District and a dozen other affected districts for this year’s elections.

Opponents, including state Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, sought an emergency stay of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik’s March 15 ruling that put the new map in place. They went to the Supreme Court after a three-judge federal appeals court also declined to intercede.

The underlying lawsuit before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is still alive. The two sides will spar before that court in two months. That’s when briefs in the case are due. A decision could now only affect maps from 2026 onward.

All this was touched off by a lawsuit filed by Latino voters who argued the map crafted by the bipartisan Washington State Redistricting Commission and approved by state lawmakers in early 2022 violated federal law by impairing the ability of Latino voters to participate equally in elections.

Lasnik agreed, ruling last summer that the configuration diluted the Latino vote and must be redrawn in time for the 2024 elections.

The new map “cements last year’s historic ruling” and is “a huge win for Latino voters in the Yakima Valley and for fair representation,” said attorney Simone Leeper of the Campaign Legal Center, which led the legal team that brought the suit.

The redrawn district at the center of the controversy will encompass communities from East Yakima to Pasco and include Wapato, Toppenish, Granger, Sunnyside and nearly all of the historic lands of the Yakama Nation Reservation.

Lasnik also approved renumbering the 15th district as 14th. That means the district’s legislative positions, including the state Senate seat, will be on ballots in presidential election years starting this year.

Plaintiffs argued that the Latino community will have a better chance to elect a candidate of their choosing in these years because that is when turnout of Latino voters is historically higher.

A different group of Latino voters, including Ybarra, contended the new map makes “a mockery of the Voting Rights Act” for “transparent partisan gains.” The new district will have a smaller percentage of voting-age Hispanics than the invalidated district but the partisan performance will shift in Democrats favor, they stated in legal briefs.

What’s next?

Tuesday’s decision allowed the Secretary of State’s Office to give affected counties “definitive guidance” on how to proceed, said Stuart Holmes, the state elections director.

Overall, 13 legislative districts across 12 counties, including Yakima, Clark, Benton, King and Pierce, will be redrawn. The counties have until April 29 to alter precinct boundaries. Candidate filing begins May 6 for this year’s elections.

In some counties, the new boundaries follow existing precinct lines so the changeover will be somewhat easier, Holmes said.

Several counties will require significant changes to existing precincts in order to implement the new boundaries. In those cases, the new precincts will need to be drawn and adopted by the county legislative authority, he said. 

Registered voters will not need to take any action. They will be automatically moved into new districts and receive a new voter registration card, he said.

Five of the region’s state lawmakers – all Republicans – will find themselves living in new districts due to the redrawn boundaries. 

The most notable is Sen. Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, elected in the 15th District by an overwhelming margin in 2022. She will be in the 16th District. Torres, the Senate’s only Republican Latina, is able to complete her term even though she won’t be living within the 15th’s boundaries.

Other lawmakers affected are Sens. Brad Hawkins of East Wenatchee and Curtis King of Yakima, and Reps. Chris Corry of Yakima and Gina Mosbrucker of Goldendale.