The plan sent to the Washington State Supreme Court by the bipartisan redistricting commission includes a Latino voter majority district in Central Washington by a slim margin, but that doesn’t mean Latino voters will be able to elect their preferred candidates.
District 15 — which includes parts of Yakima, Grant, Benton, Franklin and Adams counties in the plan — has a Latino voter population of 50.02% and an overall minority voter population of 55.05%, according to population breakdowns released this week by the commission.
The district gives Latino voters the majority in sheer numbers, but Yakima attorney and resident David Morales said that is only the first criteria for a Voting Rights Act-compliant district.
Morales said the district would also need to perform for the Latino community by allowing Latino voters to elect their candidates of choice.
An analysis conducted by the UCLA Voting Rights Project used outcomes from other statewide elections, such as the 2012 Supreme Court contest, to see how the District 15 in the plan would perform for Latino voters. The district would consistently vote against Latino candidates of choice, the analysis found.
Legal precedent says it may be a violation of the Voting Rights Act if the commission could have drawn a performing Latino district and chose not to, Morales said.
Drawing a performing Latino voter majority district was possible. A number of maps presented to the commission included a performing Latino voter majority district in Central Washington, Morales said.
The Voting Rights Project analysis said one map, created by the Redistricting Justice Coalition in Yakima, met all voting rights standards and would consistently perform for Latino candidates of choice. The district would have a Latino voter majority of 52.05% and a minority voter majority of 62.6%.
“The commission chose to go with a map where the probability that there is a Latino candidate of choice that wins is actually very low,” Morales said. “That’s the problem with District 15.”
District 15 in the commission’s plan leans Republican and has a Native American population of 2.18%.
The Yakama Reservation is separated from the Latino voter majority district and is in District 14. Commissioners tried not to split up the reservation as has been done in the past at the request of the Yakama Nation.
District 14 includes parts of Yakima and Klickitat counties. It has a minority voter population of 31.95%, with Latino voters making up 22.55% and Native American voters making up 6.44% of the total.
Morales said separating the Native American community from the Latino community in the Yakima Valley was a bad choice.
One reason comes down to geography, Morales said.
“The Latino community and Native Americans share many of the same towns,” Morales said. “If you’re going to to divide the Latino population and the Native American reservation like that, you’re going to end up splitting a lot of communities that feel like they should be in the same district.”
Native American voters also overwhelmingly vote for Latino candidates of choice, Morales said.
“At the ballot box, there's a strong showing that Native Americans and Latinos share common interests, particularly in the form of political preferences,” Morales said.
Morales also opposed the map’s split through east Yakima. He said local organizations have spent a decade organizing Latino voters in east Yakima.
“To split that area up I think sends a clear signal that the preference of the commissioners was that those east Yakima voters be broken up,” Morales said.
Alison McCaffree, redistricting issue chair for the League of Women Voters of Washington, said the idea to combine Yakima-area Latino voters with Pasco-area Latino voters in a Latino voter majority district wasn’t raised by people in those communities.
“And yet, this 15 combines them,” McCaffree said. “It’s very awkward, I think.”
It doesn’t line up with communities of interest, she said. Pasco and Walla Walla have strong economic ties, McCaffrey said, but Pasco is split, with much of the town falling into District 15. Walla Walla is in District 16.
“And the Yakama Nation was put together, which was their No. 1 concern, but put with a whiter, wealthier side of Yakima when historically they’ve been very aligned with Latinos in Yakima,” McCaffrey said.
She said she hopes the court will be transparent about the mapping process and communicate how it is interpreting voting rights laws.
“The court is coming at it from a legal mindset, so they may interpret the laws differently and that could make them draw the maps differently,” she said.
All four voting commissioners supported the final plan, and Republicans Joe Fain and Paul Graves said they believe District 15 complies with the federal Voting Rights Act.
Democrats Brady Pinero Walkinshaw and April Sims said there will likely be more discussion about Voting Rights Act compliance.
The commissioners voted in a meeting Wednesday to remove a paragraph from its report to the Legislature that said the plan was drawn to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.
The removed paragraph said: “In addition, the plan was drawn to respect the provisions of Section 2 of the Federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group. As a result, efforts were made to draw one majority-minority congressional district in the South Seattle/South King County area, as well as several legislative districts throughout the state.”
Walkinshaw said the paragraph should be removed because more could be said about federal and state voting rights legislation. It should be removed in the interest of time, he said.
The other voting commissioners agreed.
Fain and Graves maintained that the plan complies with the federal Voting Rights Act. Fain said the plan increases Latino performance in District 15 by double digits.
Sen. Curtis King, a Republican representing District 14 in the Legislature, said he hopes the Supreme Court will adopt the plan reached by the bipartisan commission.
“I'm hoping that rather than going through it again for a plan to be designed by the Supreme Court that they will just accept the agreement that was reached by these four people and allow us to move on,” he said.
King said he thinks the plan meets the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and meets the other required criteria for a new districting plan, such as compactness and population equality.
He said he doesn’t think the analysis published by the UCLA Voting Rights Project and its director Matt Barreto is neutral.
“Why we’re letting somebody from California dictate or try to dictate what we do in the state of Washington is beyond me,” King said.
Sen. Jim Honeyford and Rep. Bruce Chandler did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this article.