By Megan Bodenhamer
Washington State has rather progressive and cutting-edge voting and election laws. For example, Washington State was one of the pioneers for statewide mail-in voting, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, voter turnout in the state is consistently above the national average. Washington State also has one of the nation’s few bi-partisan redistricting committees. However, despite these policies—that, on the surface, may seem modern and equitable—there are problems plaguing Washington State’s elections that are far from idyllic. Specifically, Washington State has faced many allegations of voting discrimination against its Latino population.
On January 19th of this year, a lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington alleging intentional discrimination against Latino voters by the Washington State Legislature and the Washington State Redistricting Commission. The UCLA Voting Rights Project, the Campaign Legal Center, and residents of Yakima (hereafter “Plaintiffs”) filed the lawsuit against the Washington State Secretary of State, the Speaker of the Washington State House of Representatives, and the Majority Leader of the Washington State Senate. The Plaintiffs allegethat “[t]he Washington State Redistricting Commission . . . selected redistricting plans for Washington’s state legislative districts that dilute Hispanic and/or Latino voters’ ability to elect candidates of choice.” The allegations arise out of Yakima, Franklin, Adams, and Grant counties. The lawsuit alleges that the Washington State Redistricting Commission intentionally “cracked” these Latino populations and mixed them with a heavily white population, thus diluting their votes. Lines were drawn through the City of Yakima cutting across the areas where Latino populations live, while still including blocs of white voters that often vote against Latino-preferred candidates. Further exacerbating the problem, Latino voters in the included area have a low turnout rate, while those excluded have a higher rate. This case has not yet been tried, but it will certainly be a pivotal decision for the longevity of the newly created districts in Washington.
Gerrymandering is not the only place where Latino voters in Washington State face challenges. Due to its long-time mail-in voting system, Washington State employs a signature matching system to deter voter fraud. Unfortunately, in high-Hispanic counties, Latinos were four times more likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected for signature issues. As a result of these signature denial disparities, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Latino Community Fund of Washington have filed suit against Benton, Chelan, and Yakima counties for violating the 14th and 15th Amendments. The lawsuit claims that the signature-matching policies are flawed because they are subject to the discretion of local election workers and have inconsistent results over time, harming Latino voters in Washington State.
However, there has also been successful litigation in Washington to defend Latino rights. In 2022, the UCLA Voting Rights Project settled a claim against Franklin County under the Washington Voting Rights Act, a recently passed state provision. Franklin County admitted fault in the settlement, conceding that they were in violation of the Act. Franklin County previously had an at-large voting system where a Latino-preferred candidate had never won. Under the settlement, Franklin County Commissioner elections will be required to use single-member districts beginning in 2024. While this may be a win for Latino voters in Franklin County, there is much work to be done in other counties, across the state of Washington, and across the United States.