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Yakima County at the center of redistricting fight

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(The Center Square) – Voters in 13 legislative districts have been moved into new districts for 2024, following an unsuccessful request for a stay in the case of Palmer v. Hobbs.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan denied the request in a ruling on April 2. The case is now back in the 9th District Circuit Court of Appeals.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik adopted a new Washington state legislative map to create a majority-Latino voting district in central Washington.

Lasnik’s decision to redraw the 15th Legislative District comes after his ruling in August 2023 in Palmer v. Hobbs that legislative maps drawn in 2021 by the Washington State Redistricting Commission for the Yakima Valley “cracked” – or diluted – the Latino vote.

The decision was Lasnik’s as a result of the state and Secretary of State Steve Hobbs being sued after the Washington State Redistricting Commission completed its work. Plaintiffs claimed the original map failed to comply with the federal voting rights law.

Filing week begins May 6 in Washington and the revised map affects multiple incumbent Republican legislators. One of those affected is Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, who used to represent norther Yakima County as part of the 13th Legislative District.

“I stepped in to defend the against the lawsuit because I lose Yakima County, and this lawsuit says I don’t represent people just like me,” he said.

Ybarra was one of the “intervenor defendants” added to the case after Hobbs deferred to Attorney General Bob Ferguson to defend the state’s interests. Other intervenors include Granger Mayor Jose Trevino and Ismael G. Campos of Kennewick.

When new legislative district maps were drawn after the 2020 census, Democrats lobbied Washington’s independent bipartisan redistricting commission for a majority-minority district in Yakima County, where Hispanic voters make up over 50% of the population. The commission’s map was approved by the state Supreme Court and adopted by the Legislature as required by state law.

Palmer v. Hobbs was brought in January 2022 under the federal Voting Rights Act by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit with ties to Democratic administrations at the federal, state and local levels.

Dan Jackson responded on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office, stating they had “hired a preeminent expert on the Voting Rights Act to respond to the arguments presented by the plaintiffs and interveners.” Based on the opinion of Voting Rights Act expert Dr. John Alford that the enacted map likely violated the Act, Ferguson filed a brief support of the plaintiff’s claims that the map presented a barrier to Hispanic voters electing their preferred candidate.

In the first test of the bipartisan commission map in November 2022, Sen. Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, defeated Democrat Lindsey Keesling with 67.68% in the majority-minority 15th Legislative District. Torres is the first Latina senator elected from eastern Washington. However, the revised map means she no longer lives in the 15th Legislative District.

“It’s gerrymandering,” Ybarra said in a phone interview this week. “If you look up where legislators live and the new map you’ll find that they just drew everybody out of their districts. I’m now out of Yakima, so the only two Hispanic legislators in eastern Washington were redistricted out of Yakima County.”

In his opinion on the Palmer v. Hobbs case issued Aug. 10, Judge Robert S. Lasnik relied on expert testimony comparing the “2022 legislative priorities of Washington’s Latino Civic Alliance to the voting records of the legislators from the Yakima Valley region” and concluding the incumbent legislators in three districts were insufficiently supportive of the political agenda of the LCA.

Judge Lasnik ordered new maps be drawn and adopted by Feb. 7, with a report in Jan. 8 “notifying the Court on whether a reconvened Commission was able to redraw and transmit to the Legislature a revised map by that date.”

However, the bipartisan redistricting commission was not reconvened. Lasnik’s March 15 order adopted a map provided by the plaintiffs that reduces the percentage of Hispanic voters while increasing the percentage of likely Democrat voters. Senators affected by the changes in addition to Torres include Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee.

According to Ybarra, King is moving in order to be able to run in the newly redefined 14th Legislative District.

“Look at the 14th,” Ybarra said. “They basically just drew a big line from the 17th in Vancouver and gerrymandered Mossbrucker and Corry out of their district. Just look at that one alone.”

House members formerly representing the 14th Legislative District, Rep. Gina Mossbrucker, R-Godendale, and Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima, will not be moving.

Washington’s independent redistricting commission was adopted by voters in a 1983 constitutional amendment. The process was first used to draw maps in 1991.