(The Center Square) – State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, hasn’t held back in criticizing Democratic leaders for what he contends is their willingness to let a federal court redraw the disputed boundaries of south-central Washington’s 15th Legislative District in order to address claimed Latino voter dilution.
On Aug. 10, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik concluded in the case of Soto Palmer v. Hobbs that legislative maps drawn in 2021 by the Washington State Redistricting Commission for the Yakima Valley “cracked” the Latino vote.
In redistricting, “cracking” refers to the practice of drawing electoral districts that divide the population of a community or constituency across several districts to reduce their influence. That prevents a given group from forming a voting block within any single district sufficient to elect the group’s preferred candidates.
There was also a separate and parallel lawsuit involving plaintiff Benancio Garcia III, a congressional candidate in 2022 who contended that Legislative District 15 is an example of illegal racial gerrymandering. In a 2-1 panel vote on Sept. 8, Lasnik and fellow federal Judge David Estudillo dismissed the case, saying it was moot because the map would be redrawn under the Soto Palmer v. Hobbs case. But Judge Lawrence VanDyke dissented, saying the case “still has some life in it.”
Braun said there is a preferred solution to the ruling in Soto Palmer v. Hobbs.
“The right answer to this is to put the redistricting commission back together; tell them to go do it again,” he told The Center Square. “And this time, you know, maybe try and get our redistricting track record on a better path by being very transparent.”
Democratic leadership doesn’t see it that way.
Gov. Jay Inslee has said he does not intend to call a special session for state legislators to consider reconvening the redistricting commission. Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane and House Speaker Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma have publicly agreed with Inslee.
Braun accused Democrats of using the federal judicial system to do a job Washington officials should be doing.
“Their frustration here is with redistricting process,” the minority leader of the Senate said. “They don’t want a bipartisan process anymore. They see other states without a bipartisan process running up the score, and they see this as the barrier to a supermajority and free will to do whatever they want, and therefore they are trying to use the judicial system to get around this.”
Braun was incredulous at Democratic leadership’s preferred course of action.
“Every other state in the country is fighting not to have federal courts do their redistricting,” he noted. “In Washington, the Democrats are fighting to have the federal courts do their redistricting.”
Braun accused Democrats of going after Sen. Nikki Torres, who in November was elected to represent the majority-Hispanic 15th Legislative District by more than 67% of voters.
“I think they want to use the judicial system to gerrymander the 15th and frankly go after Sen. Nikki Torres, who has done a fabulous job … and is doing a great job,” he said. “And the fact that she is doing a great job and is a Hispanic but not a Democrat – that doesn’t work for them.”
Braun returned to the notion that reconvening the redistricting commission is the way to go.
“Why are we not choosing the open, transparent, inclusive process that we originated in our country?” he asked. “Why are we walking away from that for a black box and a judge? It’s because they want a certain outcome. They want an outcome that is heavily in their favor.”
The Center Square reached out to Billig and Jinkins, asking for their take on Braun’s contention that Democrats are using the federal judicial system to gerrymander in their favor and target Torres.
Aaron Wasser, communications director for Senate Democrats, referred The Center Square to a Sept. 13 news release put out by Billig and Jinkins.
“We are committed to the goals of the Voting Rights Act (VRA),” the news release reads. “The plaintiffs made their case in court, and the US District Court for Western Washington found that the existing maps do not meet the standard set by the VRA. Now, voters in the Yakima Valley are entitled to fair and timely legislative maps.
“The most expedient and non-political way to move forward is for the court to directly adopt a map that meets statutory and constitutional obligations, providing Yakima Valley voters the ability to elect their candidate of choice.”
The Center Square also reached out to the Governor’s Office about what Braun had to say.
“It’s preposterous to suggest a federal court would gerrymander this legislative district,” Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said in an email. “Courts have historically been the place where gerrymandering goes to die.”
He concluded, “Is there a word for when partisan politics leads someone to falsely accuse others of partisan politics? That’s the word I want to use here.”