WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Thursday, June 15, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA). Enacted in 2018, the WVRA is a state law modeled after certain aspects of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was established to ensure minority groups have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and protects them from discrimination in voting. “In sum, the WVRA means exactly what it says. All Washington voters are protected from discrimination on the basis of race, color, or language minority group,” wrote Justice Mary Yu, who authored the unanimous opinion.
In 2021, Latino voters sued Franklin County, Washington under the WVRA and prevailed.
This unequivocal voting rights victory arises from the second-ever lawsuit brought under the WVRA, Portugal v. Franklin County, which was filed in 2021 on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens and three Latino voters in Franklin County, Washington. The Latino voters specifically challenged Franklin County’s hybrid electoral scheme used for electing members to the Franklin County Commission — the county’s primary governing body — alleging that the scheme diluted Latino voting power.
Under the challenged regime for electing members to the Franklin County Commission, the county utilized an at-large electoral system in general elections whereby commissioners were elected by voters across the entire county. In contrast, the county employed a separate, district-based system in primary elections.
Nearly one year after the case was filed, Latino voters reached a historic settlement agreement with Franklin County that would pave the way for long overdue Latino representation in the county’s local government. Under the agreement, the county’s Latino population — which accounts for over 50% of Franklin County’s total population — would be able to elect a candidate of their choice to the three-member Franklin County Commission for the first time in over two decades beginning in the 2024 election cycle.
Despite a successful resolution of the case, a local Republican official appealed to the state Supreme Court and asked it to strike down the WVRA in its entirety.
However, despite the successful settlement agreement between the parties, James Gimenez — a local Republican official who intervened in the lawsuit and was previously denied relief by a state trial court — appealed the settlement to the Washington Supreme Court. On appeal, Gimenez asked the Washington Supreme Court to void the settlement and declare the WVRA unconstitutional on its face, largely reiterating his arguments that were previously rejected by the trial court.
Gimenez’s arguments centered on the assertion that the WVRA amounts to a “racial gerrymander” since it “makes race the predominant factor in districting, and grants elections and voting privileges to certain groups over others” in contravention of both the U.S. and Washington Constitutions. Additionally, Gimenez argued that the Latino voters “lack[ed] standing” (meaning capacity to sue) since they are not “members of a protected [minority] class” under the WVRA.
Today’s opinion affirms the WVRA’s constitutionality and rejects the Republican offical’s arguments.
In today’s unanimous opinion, the Washington Supreme Court flatly rejected Gimenez’s head-on constitutional challenge to the WVRA and affirmed its constitutionality under both the Washington and United States Constitutions. “On its face, the WVRA does not require race-based favoritism in local electoral systems, nor does it trigger strict scrutiny by granting special privileges, abridging voting rights, or otherwise classifying voters on the basis of race,” the unanimous opinion stated. “Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs have standing and that the WVRA is valid and constitutional on its face,” the court concluded.
As a result of today’s opinion, the pro-voting settlement that was previously reached between Latino voters and Franklin County remains operative. Accordingly, in the 2024 election cycle, the county’s Latino voters will be able to elect a candidate of their choice under the county’s newly-implemented single-member districts for general elections, one of which is a Latino-majority district. Additionally, the opinion confirms that Washington voters will be able to continue relying on this key statue in order to challenge racially discriminatory maps and voting laws at the local level.
This decision has positive implications for state-level VRAs across the country.
Finally, today’s opinion represents a triumph for voting rights protections at the local level. As protections for minority communities under the federal VRA have eroded over the past decade, state-level VRAs are becoming increasingly salient in protecting voters throughout local jurisdictions.
In addition to Washington, states including California, Oregon, Virginia, New York — and most recently Connecticut — have adopted state-level VRAs, which serve as crucial bulwarks against racial discrimination in voting. Notably, California’s 2002 Voting Rights Act withstood a similar legal challenge after both a federal and state court upheld the law’s constitutionally under both the U.S. and California Constitutions.
As Ruth Greenwood, director of Harvard Law School’s Election Law Clinic — and counsel for amici curiae in support of the Latino voters — previously explained to Democracy Docket: “[State-level VRAs] are one of our best hopes, short of federal legislation, to fight back against the U.S. Supreme Court’s hostility to federal voting rights’ claims.”