Washington Franklin County Electoral System Challenge
Portugal v. Franklin County
Lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and three Latino voters against Franklin County, Washington, and its three-member county commission challenging the county’s hybrid electoral scheme. The county utilizes an at-large electoral system in general elections and a separate district-based system in primary elections for the Franklin County Commission, the county’s primary governing body. The plaintiffs allege that Franklin County’s current electoral scheme for primary elections “dilutes the votes of Latino/a voters in Franklin County” since it “break[s] up the cohesive and compact Latino community by splitting voters across three districts” despite the fact that the “Latino community is large enough and sufficiently geographically compact to comprise a majority-minority district.” In terms of the at-large electoral scheme that the county uses for general elections, the plaintiffs contend that it “further dilutes Latino voting power, because there is racially polarized voting during county elections which operates to block Latino voters from electing candidates of their choice.” The plaintiffs note that despite accounting for over one-third of Franklin County’s population, “Latino voters in Franklin County have not been able to elect a candidate of their choice to the County Commission in the past 20 years.” The plaintiffs argue that on the whole, this bifurcated electoral system combined with the county’s history of discrimination renders Latino voters in Franklin County unable to elect candidates of their choice as guaranteed by the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA). The plaintiffs ask the court to declare Franklin County’s electoral system in violation of the WVRA since it prevents “minority groups [from] hav[ing] an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice or influence the outcome of an election” and also ask the court to prevent any future elections from being administered under the current system. Finally, they ask the court to order the county to implement a new electoral system that complies with the WVRA and does not dilute Latino votes.
On Sept. 13, 2021, a trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and ordered the parties to work cooperatively “to implement a single member district-based voting system for the primary and general elections for Franklin County Commissioner Elections” before the November 2022 elections. However, the court then granted the Franklin County Commission’s motion to vacate (meaning void) this summary judgment order, meaning there was no relief for the 2022 elections. Subsequently, the plaintiffs filed a renewed motion for summary judgment. Meanwhile, on Nov. 10, 2021, a Franklin County GOP precinct committee officer, James Gimenez, intervened in the lawsuit and asked the court to declare the WVRA in violation of the Washington Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Gimenez argued that the WVRA “explicitly makes race the predominant factor in redistricting wherever it is invoked” and that the plaintiffs “lack standing” since they are not “members of a protected minority class.” The trial court denied Gimenez’s request on Jan. 3, 2022, and held that the WVRA is indeed constitutional under both the federal and state constitutions. Meanwhile on May 9, 2022, the trial court entered a settlement agreement under which the “Franklin County Commissioner elections will be required to use single-member districts starting in 2024” and in which “the new single-member district map includes the first ever Latino majority citizen voting age population district in the county and keeps a majority of East Pasco whole in District 2.” In its May 9 order, the court also dismissed the lawsuit, thereby ending litigation.
Despite the entry of the settlement agreement resolving the case, the intervenor, Gimenez, nevertheless appealed the denial of his motion asking the court to strike down the WVRA to the Washington Supreme Court in June 2022. On appeal, Gimenez asks the Washington Supreme Court to void the May 9 settlement and to declare the WVRA unconstitutional. The Washington Supreme Court heard oral argument on May 11, 2023.
On Thursday, May 11, the Washington Supreme Court heard a direct constitutional challenge to the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA): a 2018 state law modeled after certain aspects of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was enacted to ensure “minority groups have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice or influence the outcome of an election.”
At yesterday’s oral argument, Gimenez, the Republican intervenor in the lawsuit, contended that the Washington Supreme Court should deem the WVRA unconstitutional on its face, largely reiterating his arguments that were previously rejected by the trial court. In particular, he asserted that the WVRA violates both the United States and Washington Constitutions, suggesting that the Act “involves race-based redistricting” and affords privileges to certain groups over others. Gimenez also went so far as to assert that the Latino voters who brought the lawsuit lacked the capacity to sue (“standing” in legal terms) since they are “not a minority group,” but rather a “majority” of the population in Franklin County.
On the other side, the Latino voters refuted Gimenez’s arguments and urged the state Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the WRVA, arguing that it comports with both the federal and state constitutions. The Latino voters countered Gimenez’s argument that they lack standing, noting that Latino voters are indeed a minority in Franklin County, only constituting about 33% of the citizen voting-age population. The voters emphasized that the reason why Latinos were unable to elect candidates of their choice under the previous at-large electoral system is because they do not in fact make up a majority of the citizen voting-age population.
The Latino voters also urged the court to show deference to the Washington Legislature, which enacted the WVRA with the intent to remedy past discrimination towards the state’s minority communities and ensure that these communities have a fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. They concluded their argument by rebutting Gimenez’s assertion that the remedy enacted in the Franklin County settlement involved drawing race-based district lines: “The very people who initially opposed this litigation — the elected county commissioners — drew the remedy plan. And there is no evidence…that the individual lines in that plan…were made on the basis of race.”
Following oral argument, the Washington Supreme Court will weigh both sides’ arguments before ultimately issuing a decision on the constitutionality of the WVRA.
Case Documents (trial court)
Case Documents (washington supreme court)