WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Thursday, Aug. 10, a federal judge struck down Washington State’s legislative map for violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). This pro-voting decision originates from a federal lawsuit, Palmer v. Hobbs, which was filed on behalf of Latino voters in January 2022.
The Palmer lawsuit alleged that Washington’s legislative districts drawn after the 2020 census intentionally “cracked” Latino voters into several districts in the Yakima Valley region, thereby diluting their voting strength in violation of Section 2 of the VRA. The lawsuit specifically challenged the state’s 15th Legislative District, arguing that although Latino voters constitute a slim majority of the district’s citizen voting age population, they are nevertheless deprived of the equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
The case went to trial in June 2023, and was heard alongside a parallel but separate legal challenge to the state’s legislative map alleging racial gerrymandering claims. Yesterday’s decision only addresses the Palmer lawsuit’s claims under Section 2 of the VRA, noting that a “separate order will be issued in Garcia regarding the Equal Protection claim.”
“The question in this case is whether the state has engaged in line-drawing which, in combination with the social and historical conditions in the Yakima Valley region, impairs the ability of Latino voters in that area to elect their candidate of choice on an equal basis with other voters. The answer is yes,” wrote Judge Robert Lasnik of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
In yesterday’s ruling in favor of the Latino voters, Lasnik held that Washington’s 15th Legislative District “diluted the Latino vote in the Yakima Valley region in violation of plaintiffs’ rights under Section 2” of the VRA. “[T]he Court finds that the boundaries of LD 15, in combination with the social, economic, and historical conditions in the Yakima Valley region, results in an inequality in the electoral opportunities enjoyed by white and Latino voters in the area,” the opinion continued.
As a result of this decision, the state will have the chance to adopt a revised legislative map that complies with Section 2 by a court-mandated deadline of Feb. 7, 2024. The court’s order stipulated that if the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission is unable to redraw and transmit a new map to the Legislature by Jan. 8, 2024, it will allow the parties in the lawsuit to submit proposed maps for the court’s consideration. The order states that “[r]egardless whether the State or the Court adopts the new redistricting plan, it will be transmitted to the Secretary of State on or before March 25, 2024, so that it will be in effect for the 2024 elections.”
This voting rights victory comes as one of the first decisions in a Section 2 redistricting case since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Allen v. Milligan, which preserved the current application of Section 2.