WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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.” This head-on legal challenge to the WVRA arose from a previously decided case out of Franklin County, Washington, Portugal v. Franklin County — the second ever lawsuit brought under the WVRA.
Back in April 2021, the League of United Latin American Citizens and Latino voters filed a lawsuit alleging that Franklin County’s hybrid electoral scheme, used for electing members to the county commission, diluted Latino voting power. As Franklin County’s primary governing body, the Franklin County Commission sets the county’s budget and oversees programs and services pertaining to public health, environmental protection, housing, public services and more.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, Franklin County used a bifurcated election system for electing members to its three-member county commission. Primary elections for the positions were held under single-member districts, while general elections utilized an at-large system whereby commissioners were elected by voters across the entire county. The Latino voters argued that this electoral system, combined with Franklin County’s history of discrimination, rendered the county’s Latino voters unable to elect candidates of their choice in violation of the WVRA.
On May 9, 2022 — in what was ostensibly a successful resolution to the lawsuit — the trial court approved a settlement agreement between Latino voters and Franklin County to implement single-member county commission districts for general elections, including one majority-Latino district, by 2024. In the same order, the court also dismissed the lawsuit, thereby concluding litigation.
However, in June 2022, a local Franklin County Republican official, James Gimenez — who became involved in the litigation nearly six months after it began — appealed the case to the Washington Supreme Court, asking it to strike down the WVRA in its entirety and to void the successful settlement agreement. Gimenez mounted this appeal to the state’s highest court despite the fact that the trial court previously rejected his arguments.
At yesterday’s oral argument, Gimenez 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.